Oct 10, 2016 | By Alec

Who says desktop 3D printers are just toys? While standard, consumer-grade 3D printers are sometimes criticized for being too limited in their usefulness, a team of roboticists from the National University of Singapore has just reminded the world of what these machines are capable of. The researchers, all part of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, used this conventional hardware to set up a ‘Soft Robot Factory’ and 3D print a series of very cost-effective soft pneumatic actuators for healthcare applications and more.

This is a fantastic achievement because soft robots are usually very expensive to develop, especially because they rely on very complex inner geometries to generate certain responses under pressure. It ensures that, when pressurized with air, the actuators form a very solid grip on an object on a manufacturing line, for instance. Even more expenses are incurred because the conventional manufacturing process is very time-consuming, inconsistent in its quality and features multiple production steps. And yet these soft robots are soaring in popularity, because they bring a wide range of abilities, sensitivity levels and motion opportunities to the table that ‘hard’ robotics cannot achieve.

Through 3D printing, however, the Singapore team has now achieved a greater degree of freedom and is manufacturing at a fraction of the original costs by relying on commercially available 3D printing hardware and filament. It’s a breakthrough made possible by Dr. Raye Yeow, who is Assistant Professor within the Biomedical Engineering department, as well as principal investigator at the Singapore Institute for Neurotechnology and Advanced Robotics Center, and has previously worked on numerous medical wearable projects. Together with team members Hong-Kai Yap and Hui-Yong Ng. Dr. Yeow, he extensively studied filament properties, actuator behavior and performance in terms of bending, output force, durability and more. Leveraging conventional FDM 3D printers and CAD design for customizable inner geometries, they were able to develop very practical actuators as well.

As the researchers explain, they extensively tested their 3D printed results for gripping ability. As you can see in the clip below, their 3D printed soft gripper achieved a very high payload-to-weight ratio, easily lifting 5kg objects. “To demonstrate the ability of the actuators to achieve complex movements, such as bidirectional bending movements, we also developed wearable hand and wrist exoskeletons that were able to assist finger flexion and wrist flexion–extension,” they add. “The proposed technique is the first-in-class approach to directly 3D print airtight soft pneumatic actuators for soft robotic applications using FDM technology.”

What’s more, the researchers are already looking into practical applications, with clinical and industrial grippers at the top of the list. Especially their soft 3D printed gripper can be combined with a wide range of commercially used (assembly) robot arms, and are capable of delicate object manipulation and compatible with objects of all shapes and sizes. Their wrist rehabilitation devices, meanwhile, should be hugely helpful for hand and wrist exercises.

While we’ve seen plenty of 3D printed actuators already, this is one of the first times that low-cost desktop FDM 3D printers were used with airtight, professional-grade results. As such, the logical next step would be to make their designs available within the 3D printing community and Dr. Yeow’s team has already expressed that intention. In the near future, we might all be 3D printing soft robotics at home – perfect for students, inventors and researchers everywhere.

 

 

Posted in 3D Printing Application

 

 

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