Soft robotic hands have long been regarded as complex due to the numerous engineering factors involved in their design, such as material elasticity and durability. Traditionally, 3D-printing soft robotic components required separate manufacturing methods for each individual part, limiting their form, function, and flexibility. However, a groundbreaking collaboration between engineers from ETH Zurich and Inkbit, an MIT spin-off company, has introduced an innovative approach that revolutionizes the production process.
Employing a 3D-printer equipped with a laser scanner and feedback learning, these engineers have successfully created intricate products with astounding results. From a six-legged gripper robot to an artificial “heart” pump and sturdy metamaterials, their achievements also include an articulating soft robotic hand complete with artificial tendons, ligaments, and bones.
The key to their success lies in the integration of scanning technology with rapid printing adjustments. Instead of painstakingly scraping away imperfections layer-by-layer, three-dimensional scanning provides instant information on surface irregularities. This data is then relayed to the printer’s feedback mechanism, enabling real-time and precise adjustments to the material amount.
In their recently published paper in Nature, the researchers showcase the potential of this new method using slow-curing polymers. They demonstrate its versatility by producing a resilient metamaterial cube, a fluid pump resembling a heart that can transport liquids, a sensor-informed two-pronged gripper mounted on a six-legged robot, and an articulating hand equipped with embedded sensor pads for object manipulation.
While improvements in production methods, polymer compositions, and lifespan are necessary, the team envisions that this fast and adaptable 3D-printing method could lead to groundbreaking advancements in various industries, including robotics, architecture, and manufacturing. Soft robots, for instance, present a safer alternative to humans in collaborative work environments and excel in handling delicate objects compared to traditional metal robots. This novel approach already defies the limitations previously imposed on 3D printing, opening up a world of design possibilities.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
1. What are soft robotic hands?
Soft robotic hands are robotic devices designed to mimic the flexibility and dexterity of human hands. They are made from soft and pliable materials that allow for a gentle touch, making them suitable for delicate tasks and interactions.
2. How does the new 3D-printing method work for soft robotic hands?
The new 3D-printing method combines a laser scanner and feedback learning to create intricate soft robotic hands. The laser scanner provides real-time information on surface irregularities, which is then used to adjust the material amount during the printing process. This ensures precise and accurate printing, resulting in highly functional and flexible soft robotic hands.
3. What are the advantages of soft robots over traditional metal robots?
Soft robots offer several advantages over traditional metal robots. They are safer to work with, especially in collaborative environments, as their soft and flexible nature reduces the risk of injury. Additionally, soft robots are better suited for handling fragile objects due to their gentle touch and ability to conform to irregular shapes.