Exploring the Future of Soft Robotics: The 3D Printed Robotic Hand from MIT & ETH Zurich


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The innovation in robotics is continuously showing progress, specifically in the area of soft robotics. Robots created from soft substances have the capacity for elastic deformation, reducing potential risks that traditional rigid robots may possess. Soft robotics is finding extensive applications in healthcare and is being used for delicate human-machine interactions and handling of fragile or intricate items. New applications are driving the growth of 3D printed robotics. So far, fast curing plastics have been used in additive manufacturing, but the evolution and expansion of compatible materials are unlocking new possibilities. A recent study by MIT and ETH Zurich focused on a unique use for a 3D printed robotic hand.

In a pioneering move, researchers working with US start-up Inkbit successfully employed slow-curing plastics in 3D printing. These durable, elastic plastics allow handheld robots to be printed in a single pass. Through the combination of 3D printing, laser scanners, and a feedback mechanism, it became possible to 3D print polymers with excellent elasticity. This paves the way for creating intricate materials for robots, made up of different, high-quality materials with a blend of elastic and rigid structures. This successful continuous printing of intricate parts and human-like structures also offers new opportunities in the field of soft robotics. The results of the study were published in the scientific journal, Nature.

The joint venture between ETH Zurich and Inkbit demonstrated their approach with various application examples. They created high-resolution composites and different kinds of robots, including robotic hands, pneumatically operated walking manipulators, heart pumps, and other metamaterial structures. Notably, an example of a robotic hand was made from a variety of polymers, housing cavities for sensors, that was printed in a single session without the need for further assembly. The slow-curing thiolene polymers used in the process offer excellent elastic properties and faster return to their original state compared to polyacrylates. As noted by ETH Professor Robert Katzschmann, such robots are advantageous due to their reduced risk of causing injury when interacting with humans and their suitability for handling fragile goods.

A New Technological Approach for 3D Printing

The approach that MIT, ETH and Inkbit took with the robotic hand also offers high throughput and an automated multi-material printing process with high scalability. The aforementioned slow-curing polymers (thiolenes and epoxides) played a key role in the creation of the robotic hand. However, being able to process these using 3D printing also depends on the technology used. Until now, only fast-curing polymers could be processed in 3D printing, as a device scrapes off unevenness after curing and thus ensures parts of the appropriate quality. However, slow-curing polymers would cause such a scraping device to stick, so it is worth taking a closer look at the technology used by ETH Zurich in its research.

This is the benefit of Vision Controlled Jetting technology from the US start-up Inkbit, a spin-off from MIT. With this printing technology, an inkjet process, nozzles apply the desired viscous material at each point, which is cured layer by layer by a UV lamp. What is special about the technology, however, is that a 3D laser scanner then checks the printed layer for unevenness, which is then taken into account when the next layer is applied. “A feedback mechanism compensates for these irregularities when printing the next layer by calculating the precise adjustments to the amount of material to be printed in real time,” explains Wojciech Matusik, professor at MIT and co-author of the study. This means that the scanning system captures the 3D structure and enables immediate adaptation via a digital feedback loop. This eliminates the need for additional mechanical solutions and facilitates a non-contact process in which continuously curing plastics with different elasticities can be printed. Wax is used as a support structure, which is then melted away at 60 degrees celsius.

One challenge faced by the team in this research project was that some printed parts were deformed in the open air. In addition, the interfaces of the multi-material prints did not always adhere well, although this can be improved in the future. The overall high resolution, fast printing process and wide range of materials with different properties can already enable a variety of hybrid, soft/rigid robots and other applications. MIT and ETH Zurich have been able to optimize Inkbit’s printing technology for the use of slow-curing polymers through testing various applications and will now focus on exploring further possibilities and trying out printing and testing even more complex structures. Inkbit’s eventual goal is to develop and bring the technology to the market. You can find out more about the study HERE.

What do you think of the 3D-printed robotic hand and the research work between MIT and ETH Zurich? Let us know in a comment below or on our LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter pages! Don’t forget to sign up for our free weekly Newsletter here, the latest 3D printing news straight to your inbox! You can also find all our videos on our YouTube channel.

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