Fri. Dec 8th, 2023
    Innovative 3D Printing Method Paves the Way for More Flexible Robots

    Robots are known for their impressive capabilities, from running and jumping to dancing. However, their movements often lack the fluidity and flexibility of human motion. This is due to the absence of real bones and flexible tissues in robot bodies. To address this limitation, researchers from ETH Zurich and Inkbit have developed a groundbreaking 3D inkjet deposition method called vision-controlled jetting (VCJ) to create robots with internal bone-like structures.

    In conventional 3D printing, robots are built using fast-curing polymers that solidify quickly during deposition. However, this rapid solidification restricts the levels of softness and limits the types of materials that can be used. Furthermore, the process requires separate manufacturing steps and assembly, resulting in a time-consuming and labor-intensive process.

    The VCJ method changes the game by utilizing soft, slow-curing thiolene polymers. These polymers have excellent elastic properties and can quickly return to their original state after bending. The VCJ system incorporates a 3D laser scanner that visually inspects each layer for surface irregularities as it is deposited. The process is contactless and allows for a wider range of polymers to be used. Each subsequent layer compensates for irregularities in the previous layer, without the need for mechanical planarization.

    With the VCJ technique, the researchers successfully printed a robotic hand with internal structures resembling those of a human hand. Equipped with touch pads and pressure sensors, the robotic hand includes 19 tendon-like structures that enable wrist and finger movements. This innovative approach not only speeds up the engineering design process but also eliminates the need for costly intermediate tooling and assembly.

    The potential applications of VCJ extend beyond robotic hands. The researchers have also printed a robotic heart, a six-legged robot, and a metamaterial capable of absorbing vibrations. These hybrid soft-rigid systems offer enhanced flexibility and overcome design and scale-related challenges faced by traditional soft robots.

    The VCJ method represents a significant breakthrough in 3D printing technology, paving the way for more flexible and agile robots. By incorporating bone-like structures, these robots can achieve movements that closely resemble human motion. As further advancements are made, we can expect to see robots that not only possess greater dexterity but also interact with their environment in more natural and intuitive ways.

    Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

    1. What is vision-controlled jetting (VCJ)?

    VCJ is a 3D inkjet deposition method used to create robots with internal structures resembling bones, ligaments, and tendons. It involves the use of soft, slow-curing thiolene polymers and incorporates a 3D laser scanner for contactless visual inspection of each layer during deposition.

    2. How does VCJ improve the flexibility of robots?

    VCJ allows for the deposition of a wider range of polymers, including those with excellent elastic properties. The process compensates for irregularities in each layer without the need for mechanical planarization, resulting in more flexible robot structures.

    3. What are the advantages of using the VCJ method?

    The VCJ method enables the printing of complete robot structures in one go, eliminating the need for assembly. This significantly speeds up the engineering design process and reduces costs associated with intermediate tooling and assembly.

    4. What types of robots can benefit from the VCJ technique?

    The VCJ technique can benefit a wide range of robots, including robotic hands, hearts, and even metamaterials. These robots, known as hybrid soft-rigid systems, offer improved flexibility and overcome design and scale-related challenges faced by traditional soft robots.