Oct 27, 2015 | By Kira

We are quickly entering an era in which robots will be an essential part of our lives, and in which human-robot interaction will be a daily occurrence. With today’s technology, however, human-robot interactions can be risky and uncomfortable: most robots are rigid machines that can only make jerky, unnatural movements. In an effort to re-think robotics from a design perspective, Delft University of Technology graduate Rob Scharff has developed a biomimetic, 3D printed soft robotic hand that uses air chambers to sense and respond to human pressure.

In collaboration with Materialise, the hand was 3D printed in a single piece using SLS technology and a flexible material similar to polyurethane. The palm of the hand contains integrated bellow-shaped air chambers that respond to pressure. When the robotic hand is squeezed, as in a handshake, air pressure in the palms increases, causing the fingers to grip either more or less.

Inspired by biological design, including actual human muscles and the structure of an elephant’s trunk, the 3D printed hand was designed to move as naturally as possible. Beyond its soft, pressure-sensing touch, the hand features articulated fingers and a thumb that can be separately controlled using pneumatics, as well as a wrist that can rotate in both directions.

“This project explores the possibilities of 3D printing bellow-shaped air chambers in a flexible material to be used as actuators or sensors,” said Scharff, who believes that robots will soon become omnipresent in our lives. “The potentialities of this technology are presented in a soft robotic hand that is able to shake hands with people…This shaking of hands is used as a metaphor to show how the technology can be used to improve human-robot interaction.”

Though still in prototype stage, the faculty of Industrial Design Engineering graduate is continuing to refine the technology, and predicts that it could be applied to orthotics, prosthetics, care robots, exploratory robots and industrial grippers. He is also working on a pair of soft-robotic, 3D printed custom-fit gloves that could be used in rehabilitation to help people learn how to grip objects again.

Scharff began developing this technology during his studies, and it has since been presented at the NIM (Nature Inspired Manufacturing) Workshop in Spain, and at Dutch Design Week 2015, which took place this past weekend in Eindhoven. Recently, we have seen several other very promising advancements in 3D printed soft robotics, including the Open Bionics’ robot hand, which won the 2015 James Dyson UK Award, Disney Research’s kid-safe 3D printed toy robots, Cornell University’s 3D printed soft ‘tentacle’, and a 3D printed soft robot hand from MIT with advanced detection algorithms.

Rob Scharff



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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