Scientists use 3D printing to create soft robotic fingers

While robotics has changed how many industry work sectors work, machines are not suitable for many healthcare applications. To solve this problem, scientists have figured out how to improve some of the robots’ movements – namely, their touch.

New strategies are needed to improve their perception and make their parts softer for robots to manipulate or interact with fragile objects and living organisms safely. In fact, creating a safe and maneuverable robotic gripper with human capabilities is currently one of the most important goals of robotics. It will enable robots to be used in healthcare and elderly care.

One of the main challenges in developing soft robotic grippers is installing traditional sensors on the robot fingers. Ideally, a soft grip should have proprioception — a sense of movement and position — to safely perform various tasks. However, traditional sensors are stiff and degrade the mechanical performance of the soft parts. Moreover, soft grips are usually designed for proprioceptive sensation, either pressure or curvature of the fingers.

To overcome these limitations, scientists from Ritsumeikan University, Japan, worked on new soft grip designs under the guidance of Associate Professor Menging Se. Their latest study, published in Nano Energy, successfully used multi-material 3D printing technology to fabricate soft robotic fingers with an embedded proprioception sensor. The new design strategy has many advantages and is a big step towards safer and more powerful soft robots.

Using multi-material 3D printing, a simple and fast prototyping process, allowed researchers to easily integrate sensitivity and stiffness adjustments into the design of the robot’s finger itself. “Our work offers a way to develop sensors that can be used not only as sensing elements but also as active functional materials. This will provide better control of the entire system without compromising its dynamic behavior, ”concludes Professor Xie. Another notable feature of their design is that the sensor is powered by a piezoelectric effect, which means that it does not require any power supply.

Overall, this research will help find new ways to improve the interaction and perception of soft grips with objects they control. In turn, this will significantly expand the use of robots, as pointed out by Professor Xie: “Built-in self-powered sensors will not only allow robots to interact with people and their environment safely but also remove obstacles to robotic devices that require a constant supply of energy.”

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