In a significant leap forward for robotics, a team of engineers at the University of California San Diego (UCSD), in collaboration with researchers at the BASF corporation, has developed a 3D-printed robotic gripper that operates without the need for electronics. This innovative device, which can pick up, hold, and release objects, is a testament to the potential of 3D printing in the field of robotics.
A New Era of Touch-Based Robotics
The robotic gripper, which is printed in one go, is equipped with built-in gravity and touch sensors. This unique design allows the gripper to interact with objects based solely on touch, a feature that was non-existent prior to this development. “We designed functions so that a series of valves would allow the gripper to both grip on contact and release at the right time,” said Yichen Zhai, a postdoctoral researcher in the Bioinspired Robotics and Design Lab at UCSD.
The gripper utilizes fluidic logic to remember when it has grasped an object and is holding onto it. When it detects the weight of the object pushing to the side, as it is rotating to the horizontal, it releases the object. This touch-based approach to object manipulation marks a significant departure from traditional robotic systems that rely heavily on visual input.
The Potential Applications of the 3D-Printed Gripper
The 3D-printed gripper holds immense potential for various applications. It can be mounted on a robotic arm for industrial manufacturing applications, food production, and the handling of fruits and vegetables. It can also be mounted onto a robot for research and exploration tasks. Moreover, it can function untethered, with a bottle of high-pressure gas as its only power source.
The team overcame the common challenges associated with 3D printing soft robots, such as stiffness and leaks, by developing a new 3D printing method. This method involves the printer nozzle tracing a continuous path through the entire pattern of each layer printed, reducing the likelihood of leaks and defects in the printed piece. “It’s like drawing a picture without ever lifting the pencil off the page,” said Michael T. Tolley, an associate professor at UCSD.
This development is a testament to the potential of 3D printing in revolutionizing the field of robotics. By eliminating the need for electronics, the team at UCSD has opened up new possibilities for the design and functionality of robotic systems.
The Future of 3D-Printed Robotics
The team's innovative approach to 3D printing has allowed for the creation of a softer structure overall. The new method enables the printing of thin walls, down to 0.5 millimeters in thickness, and complex, curved shapes, allowing for a higher range of deformation. The researchers based their method on the Eulerian path, a concept in graph theory that involves touching every edge of a graph once and only once. “When we followed these rules, we were able to consistently print functional pneumatic soft robots with embedded control circuits,” said Tolley.
The development of this 3D-printed gripper is a significant step forward in the field of robotics. By eliminating the need for electronics, the team has opened up new possibilities for the design and functionality of robotic systems. The touch-based approach to object manipulation marks a significant departure from traditional robotic systems that rely heavily on visual input.
In the future, we can expect to see more advancements in this field, with 3D printing playing a crucial role in the development of innovative and cost-effective robotic systems. The work of the team at UCSD serves as a testament to the potential of 3D printing in revolutionizing the field of robotics.
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