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.
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.