Thu. Nov 30th, 2023
    Revolutionizing Soft Robotics and 3D Printing: A New Era of Possibilities

    The landscape of robotics and additive manufacturing is undergoing a transformative shift, fueled by a groundbreaking study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and ETH Zurich. In what marks an unprecedented achievement, researchers have successfully 3D printed slow-curing plastics, effectively revolutionizing the future of soft robotics.

    Traditionally, robotics has primarily relied on rigid materials such as steel or aluminum. However, the emergence of soft robotics, which harnesses the capabilities of robots made from flexible materials, has opened up a range of exciting opportunities. Soft robotics caters to a diverse array of fields, including healthcare, where delicate human-machine interactions and the manipulation of complex objects are vital.

    Concurrently, the development of 3D printing has witnessed remarkable progress. The convergence of robotics and additive manufacturing was an organic progression, as both technologies share the drive for innovation through new applications. The advent of 3D printing has historically been limited to quick-curing plastics. Nevertheless, the collaboration between MIT, ETH Zurich, and Inkbit, a US start-up, has heralded a new era.

    By integrating laser scanners and a feedback mechanism with 3D printing, these institutions unlocked the potential to print low-viscosity, slow-curing polymers with exceptional elasticity. This breakthrough allows for the production of intricate, resilient materials that compose robots, comprising a blend of elastic and rigid structures. The ability to continuously print intricate parts and structures with cavities paves the way for further advancements in soft robotics, with endless possibilities on the horizon.

    Throughout their research, ETH Zurich and Inkbit focused on an assortment of practical applications. They successfully generated an array of high-resolution composites and robots, including robotic hands, pneumatically operated walking manipulators, heart pumps, and metamaterial structures. Notably, a 3D-printed robotic hand became the centerpiece of their study. The hand, constructed from different polymers, serves as a pioneering achievement, requiring no additional assembly after the single-printing session.

    The adoption of slow-curing thiolene polymers proved to be instrumental in fabricating the robotic hand. These polymers possess superior elastic properties and exhibit faster recovery to their original form after bending than previously used polyacrylates. Thiolene polymers offer unparalleled advantages in the fabrication of soft robots. Beyond reducing the risk of injury when interacting with humans, soft robots are better suited for handling delicate goods.

    The technological approach employed by MIT, ETH Zurich, and Inkbit also yields substantial benefits. Their methodology employs Vision Controlled Jetting technology, spearheaded by Inkbit. This inkjet-based 3D printing process utilizes nozzles to administer viscous materials that are subsequently cured using a UV lamp. What sets this technology apart is the incorporation of a 3D laser scanner that examines each printed layer for irregularities. A feedback mechanism adjusts the material deposition in real-time, ensuring precise printing and eliminating the need for mechanical solutions.

    While challenges remain, including potential deformation and interface issues in open-air environments, this groundbreaking study ushers in a new era of soft robotics and 3D printing possibilities. The high resolution, expedited printing process, and the diverse range of materials with varying properties converge to facilitate the creation of hybrid soft/rigid robots and other groundbreaking applications.

    As technology continues to evolve, the combined efforts of MIT, ETH Zurich, and Inkbit provide a glimpse of what the future holds for soft robotics and 3D printing. The potential of this symbiotic relationship is far-reaching, with profound implications for industries ranging from healthcare to manufacturing.


    1. What is soft robotics?

    Soft robotics is a field that focuses on the design and development of robots made from flexible materials. These soft robots offer advantages such as improved safety during human-machine interactions and enhanced capabilities for handling delicate objects.

    2. What is 3D printing?

    3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a process of creating three-dimensional objects by depositing material layer by layer. It allows for the fabrication of complex structures with various materials, offering unparalleled design flexibility.

    3. Why is the combination of soft robotics and 3D printing significant?

    The convergence of soft robotics and 3D printing opens up new possibilities in the field of robotics. Soft robots made through 3D printing techniques provide advantages such as improved safety, enhanced dexterity, and the ability to handle fragile objects. This combination enables the development of innovative solutions across industries, from healthcare to manufacturing.

    4. How does Vision Controlled Jetting technology work?

    Vision Control Jetting technology is an inkjet-based 3D printing process. It employs nozzles to administer viscous materials that are cured using a UV lamp. A 3D laser scanner examines each printed layer for irregularities, and a feedback mechanism adjusts the material deposition in real-time. This ensures precise printing and eliminates the need for additional mechanical solutions.

    5. What are the potential applications of soft robotics and 3D printing?

    The potential applications of soft robotics and 3D printing are vast and diverse. In healthcare, soft robots could assist with delicate surgical procedures or provide personalized and adaptive prosthetics. In manufacturing, soft robots could handle fragile goods efficiently. These technologies also have the potential to revolutionize industries such as agriculture, exploration, and disaster response, where adaptability and versatile manipulation capabilities are crucial.