Researchers at Switzerland’s ETH Zürich university have achieved a groundbreaking milestone in the field of robotics. They have successfully 3D printed a fully functional robotic hand using slow-curing thiolene polymers, which include plastic bones, ligaments, and tendons, all in a single printing process. This remarkable achievement is believed to be a world first and has the potential to revolutionize the future of robotics.
Slow-curing polymers have distinct advantages over fast-curing plastics. According to ETH Zürich researchers, these polymers enhance elastic properties, making them more durable and robust. The project’s success was made possible through a collaboration between ETH Zürich and Medford, Massachusetts-based Inkbit, an MIT spin-off. This joint effort resulted in the development of innovative technology that enables the use of slow-curing thiolene polymers, as well as a combination of soft, elastic, and rigid materials.
Thiolene polymers prove to be ideal for printing the elastic ligaments of the robotic hand due to their excellent elastic properties and quick return to their original state after bending. Unlike the previously used polyacrylates, thiolene offers better stiffness customization to meet the requirements of soft robots. Soft robots are less likely to cause harm to human co-workers and are better suited for handling delicate objects. This development opens up new possibilities for collaborative human-robot interaction in various industries.
To accommodate the slow-curing polymers, the researchers had to modify the existing 3D printing process. Traditionally, UV lamps cure each layer immediately after deposition, and surface imperfections are scraped away. However, slow-curing polymers would gum up the scraper, making this method ineffective. Instead, the team leveraged a 3D laser scanner to check each layer for surface defects. A feedback mechanism then adjusts the amount of material to be printed in real time, compensating for any irregularities. This modified 3D printing process ensures precise and accurate printing of the robotic hand.
The research also showcases a fluidic pump inspired by the mammalian heart, developed using a biomimetics approach. This pump incorporates actuation membranes, one-way valves, and internal sensor cavities, all printed in a single process. The researchers note that previously, similar designs were only achievable through time-consuming and labor-intensive casting or injection molding processes, followed by assembly.
The team at ETH Zürich plans to explore additional applications using this pioneering technology. Meanwhile, Inkbit aims to offer a 3D printing service based on this technology to its customers in the United States and eventually commercialize the printers.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
What is the key innovation in ETH Zürich’s 3D printed robotic hand?
The key innovation lies in the use of slow-curing thiolene polymers, which provide enhanced elastic properties, making the robotic hand more durable and robust.
Why are slow-curing polymers preferred over fast-curing plastics for this application?
Slow-curing polymers offer advantages such as better customization of stiffness for soft robots, safer collaboration with human co-workers, and improved handling of fragile goods.
How did the researchers overcome the challenges of using slow-curing polymers in the 3D printing process?
Instead of scraping away surface imperfections like in traditional methods, the researchers employed a 3D laser scanner to identify defects and adjusted the material deposition in real time, ensuring accurate printing.
Are there other applications of this technology?
Yes, in addition to the robotic hand, the researchers have developed a fluidic pump inspired by the mammalian heart. This technology enables the printing of intricate structures with embedded membranes and valves in a single process.
What are the future plans for this innovation?
ETH Zürich aims to explore additional applications of this technology. Inkbit, on the other hand, plans to offer 3D printing services based on this technology and eventually commercialize the printers.