Jan 25, 2019 | By Cameron

The standard robot (overlord) is usually equipped with rigid actuators, also known as grippers; they may have a soft coating to limit scratching the surface of whatever object the robot is interacting with, but ultimately the actuators have to be relatively stiff in order to bear the weight of lifted objects. For applications that involve lighter, delicate objects, the stiff actuator would have to be swapped out with a softer, more flexible actuator. Now a team of researchers from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) and Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) has 3D printed multi-material actuators with tunable stiffness that could eliminate having to swap out actuators for different tasks.

Their actuator includes a layer of a thermally activated shape memory polymer (SMP), which is a material that changes stiffness depending on its temperature. Previous attempts to make actuators with SMPs have resulted in slow responses and limited definition. But the multinational research team used direct-ink writing and multi-material 3D printing to embed heating and cooling elements into the actuators, creating the first fast-response, stiffness-tunable (FRST) soft actuators.

"We combine a commercial inkjet multi-material 3D printing technology with the direct-ink writing approach to fabricate our fully printed FRST actuator," said assistant professor Qi (Kevin) Ge from SUTD's Science and Math Cluster, one of the co-leaders of the project. "The stiffness tunability is provided by an embedded SMP layer, and the fast response is enabled by embedded heating and cooling elements."

The heating element is a deformable conductive circuit printed with a silver nanoparticle ink, and a coolant pushed through a fluidic channel provides the cooling. Pressurized air also flows through the actuator to deform it into the open and closed positions when in the rubbery/warm state; the air pressure can be removed once the actuator is stiff/cool and the actuator will hold that shape.

The SMP layer makes the actuator 120 times stiffer than the base material without sacrificing flexibility, and thanks to the temperature-control elements, the actuator can go through an entire heat and cool cycle (from 25°C to 70°C and back to 25°C) in only 32 seconds! "The deformed actuator in its stiff state can perform load-carrying tasks, even after releasing the pressurized air. More importantly, a heating-cooling cycle can be completed within about half a minute, which is the fastest rate reported, to our knowledge," stated professor Ge.

Additionally, the team designed a computer model that guides later actuator designs. "We have also built computational models to simulate the mechanical and thermal-electrical behaviors of our FRST actuator," remarked Yuan-Fang Zhang, a postdoc researcher at SUTD and co-first author of the paper. "Once validated with experiments, the models are used to guide the design of FRST actuator and provide insights into enhancement of load capacity."

Of course, no study is complete without actual tests, so the team built a robotic hand with three FRST actuators and demonstrated it lifting and grasping various objects, including a light bulb and a dumbbell. Professor Guoying Gu, a co-leader of the project at SJTU, elaborated, "To showcase the high load capacity and shape adaptivity of our prototype, we have devised a robotic gripper with three FRST actuators that can grasp and lift objects with arbitrary shapes and various weights spanning from less than 10 g to up to 1.5 kg." 3D printed FRST actuators take us a step closer to replicating the amazing dexterity of the human hand, which has a dynamic stiffness thanks to a symphony of cooperation between bones, muscles, tendons, blood, fat, and skin. The hand is a complex thing to duplicate, but with the help of 3D printing, researchers are steadily getting there.

It’s difficult to conceive of all of the uses of these actuators: nearly anything that opens and closes, goes up and down, or changes position; safety releases, valves, and adjustable air registers; and various servos that control the positions of gates. 3D printing a hinge that can open and close itself without a motor or servo is the reality we live in.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



Maybe you also like:


Leave a comment:

Your Name:


Subscribe us to

3ders.org Feeds 3ders.org twitter 3ders.org facebook   

About 3Ders.org

3Ders.org provides the latest news about 3D printing technology and 3D printers. We are now seven years old and have around 1.5 million unique visitors per month.

News Archive