Oct 3, 2016 | By Benedict

Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have developed a new method for 3D printing soft materials with precisely controlled shock-aborbing properties. The 3D printed materials could improve the durability of drones, phones, shoes, and more.

Shock-absorbing materials have uses in a variety of applications, from sports equipment to drones. By applying bouncy, soft materials to an object, manufacturers can protect that object—or its contents—from damage, making it suitable for a certain set of physical tasks. Until now, however, most shock-absorbing materials or devices have created using standard manufacturing processes such as injection molding. And while injection molding keeps down the cost of such materials, the process provides limited options in terms of flexibility—a shock-absorbing material will have a set level of “bounciness,” and that level may not be entirely suitable for the task at hand.

“Viscoelastics” such as rubber and plastic, materials that have both solid and liquid qualities, are often used as shock-absorbing dampers. But while such materials are cheap and easy to find, they are generally not able to be customized. As such, their level of stiffness and elasticity is fixed. To create a more tailor-made solution, a group of CSAIL researchers realized that 3D printing could be used to precisely engineer the shock-absorbing properties of a material, providing specific damping levels for particular applications.

“It’s hard to customize soft objects using existing fabrication methods, since you need to do injection moulding or some other industrial process,” said researcher Jeffrey Lipton. “3D printing opens up more possibilities and lets us ask the question, ‘can we make things we couldn’t make before?’”

The CSAIL researchers found that their “programmable viscoelastic material” (PVM) technique could be applied to various objects, but one particular item for which they wished to apply the technique was an unusual cube-shaped robot which moves by bouncing using looped metal strips which serve as kangaroo-like legs. Using a standard 3D printer, the researchers combined a solid, a liquid, and Stratasys’ rubber-like TangoBlack+ to create a 3D printed external layer for the robot which reduces its bounciness and therefore decreases the risk of its internal components—two motors, a microcontroller, a battery, and inertial measurement unit sensors—from suffering damage.

“That reduction makes all the difference for preventing a rotor from breaking off of a drone or a sensor from cracking when it hits the floor,” said CSAIL Director Daniela Rus. “These materials allow us to 3D print robots with visco-elastic properties that can be inputted by the user at print time as part of the fabrication process.”

The 3D printed skins developed for the cube robot helped it to land almost four times more precisely, exhibiting sufficient flexibility to reduce shock but not so much that the robot bounced out of control. By adjusting the ratio of liquid, however, the researchers can make the material more or less elastic. The success of the testing has led the researchers to believe that the technology could be used to improve the lifespan of drones, such as those being developed by Google and Amazon, as well as for shock-absorbing components of running shoes and headgear. In the case of helmets, for example, certain parts could be 3D printed for maximum comfort, while others could be engineered for maximum shock-absorbing ability as and where required.

“By combining multiple materials to achieve properties that are outside the range of the base material, this work pushes the envelope of what’s possible to print,” commented Hod Lipson, a professor of engineering at Columbia University and co-author of Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing. “On top of that, being able to do this in a single print job raises the bar for additive manufacturing.”

This work was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation. A research paper covering the group’s findings will be presented at the 2016 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems, set to take place October 9-14 in Deajeon, Korea.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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