3D printed soft robotic gripper doesn’t need electronics to work

Researchers at the University of California San Diego, in collaboration with BASF Corporation, have achieved a groundbreaking feat in soft robotics. They have developed a remarkable 3D-printed gripper that operates without any electronics. This innovative device comes off the 3D printer fully functional, equipped with gravity and touch sensors, enabling it to pick up, hold, and release objects. This gripper is the first of its kind, as no such technology existed before.

The key to its gripping and releasing capabilities lies in a cleverly designed series of valves. Upon contact with an object, the gripper automatically grasps it. When the gripper is turned horizontally, a change in airflow within the valves occurs, causing the fingers to release the object. This ingenious fluidic logic allows the robot to remember when it’s holding an object and release it at the appropriate time, enhancing its versatility and functionality.

The potential applications for this soft robotic gripper are vast. It can be attached to a robotic arm for industrial manufacturing, making it ideal for handling delicate objects, such as in food production and fruit and vegetable handling. Additionally, the gripper can be used in research and exploration tasks. The most impressive aspect is that it doesn’t require complex power sources or electronics, as it can function untethered with just a bottle of high-pressure gas.

Soft robotics holds great promise, enabling robots to interact safely with humans and delicate items. With this innovative gripper, the possibilities for human-robot collaboration and efficient automation have taken a significant step forward.

Video of a soft robotic gripper is not only 3D printed in one print, it also doesn’t need any electronics to work. The device was developed by a team of roboticists at the University of California San Diego, in collaboration with researchers at the BASF corporation, who detailed their work in a recent issue of Science Robotics. The researchers wanted to design a soft gripper that would be ready to use right as it comes off the 3D printer, equipped with built in gravity and touch sensors. As a result, the gripper can pick up, hold, and release objects. No such gripper existed before this work. “We designed functions so that a series of valves would allow the gripper to both grip on contact and release at the right time,” said Yichen Zhai, a postdoctoral researcher in the Bioinspired Robotics and Design Lab at the University of California San Diego and the leading author of the paper, which was published in the June 21 issue of Science Robotics. “It’s the first time such a gripper can both grip and release. All you have to do is turn the gripper horizontally. This triggers a change in the airflow in the valves, making the two fingers of the gripper release.” Credit: University of California San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering

A significant challenge with most 3D-printed soft robots is their inherent stiffness, numerous leaks after printing, and the need for extensive post-processing and assembly to make them usable. However, a team of researchers has ingeniously tackled these issues by devising a novel 3D printing technique.

In this groundbreaking method, the printer nozzle traces an uninterrupted path throughout the entire pattern of each printed layer. The analogy used by Michael T. Tolley, the senior author of the study, perfectly captures the concept: “It’s like drawing a picture without ever lifting the pencil off the page.”

This ingenious approach remarkably reduces the occurrence of leaks and defects in the printed soft robots, which is a common problem when dealing with soft materials in 3D printing. Moreover, this new method enables the printing of thin walls as slim as 0.5 millimeters. By incorporating thinner walls and complex curved shapes, the resulting soft structures exhibit a higher range of deformation, making them softer overall.

The researchers drew inspiration from the concept of the Eulerian path in graph theory, where a trail touches every edge of a graph once and only once. Adhering to these rules allowed the team to consistently produce functional pneumatic soft robots with built-in control circuits.

Thanks to this breakthrough, the potential of 3D-printed soft robotics has been significantly expanded, paving the way for more flexible, leak-resistant, and user-friendly soft robots in various applications.

Source: University of California – San Diego

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