Engineers at the University of California San Diego have developed a method to create soft, flexible, 3-D printed robots without the use of special equipment. This new method makes it faster and cheaper to produce the robots, which can be used for a variety of different purposes.
The engineers developed the new method by venturing off the path of how soft robots are normally built, which is by adding soft materials to a rigid robot body. Instead, the team of researchers started with a soft body and added rigid features to it. Inspiration for the robots came from insect exoskeletons, which consist of both soft and rigid components. The team calls the creations “flexoskeletons.”
The new method for developing these robots makes it much faster to construct soft components. It takes just a fraction of the time previously required, and it is much cheaper than before.
Nick Gravish is a mechanical engineering professor at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego and the paper's senior author.
“We hope that these flexoskeletons will lead to the creation of a new class of soft, bioinspired robots,” said Gravish. “We want to make soft robots easier to build for researchers all over the world.”
With the new method, large groups of flexoskeleton robots can be built with little manual assembly. It allows for the creation of separate components that are interchangeable, allowing robot parts to be swapped.
10 Minutes to Print One Flexoskeleton
The flexoskeletons are created through the use of 3D printing, with a rigid material being printed on a thin sheet. The thin sheet acts as a flexible base. The flexoskeletons have various features, and certain areas have more rigidity than others. This is also based on insect exoskeletons, which utilize a combination of softness and rigidity for movement and support.
The work was demonstrated in the April 7 issue of the journal Soft Robotics. The designs will eventually be available to other researchers in institutions and high schools, according to the team.
Only 10 minutes are required to print one flexoskeleton, and it costs less than $1. As mentioned before, there is no need for special equipment. They can be printed on most commercially available printers, with the printing and assembly of an entire robot taking less than 2 hours.
The researchers found that a sheet of polycarbonate was the best surface to print the flexoskeletons on. The surface is very flexible.
The team is hoping for the creation of an assembly line capable of printing whole exoskeleton robots, without requiring hand assembly. By grouping together multiple small robots, the work of a much larger robot can be done. This can be used in various fields, such as space missions where mass-produced, small autonomous robots could complete many tasks.