Researchers at the University of California San Diego, in collaboration with BASF corporation, have achieved a groundbreaking feat in the world of 3D printing by creating an electronics-free robotic gripper. This innovative gripper can be printed and used straight away without the need for any additional electronics or assembly. The team’s soft robotic gripper boasts built-in gravity and touch sensors, allowing it to pick up, hold, and release objects effortlessly. When the gripper is turned horizontally, a change in airflow within the valves causes the fingers to remove the thing, making it the first gripper to perform both gripping and releasing functions.
The researchers’ new 3D printing technique is the key to this advancement. Traditional 3D-printed soft robots often face challenges such as stiffness, leaks, and extensive post-processing. However, the team’s method involves the printer nozzle tracing a continuous path throughout the entire pattern of each layer printed. This novel approach minimizes the risk of leaks and faults, especially when working with soft materials. Additionally, it allows the printing of thinner walls, as thin as 0.5 millimeters, resulting in a smoother and more flexible structure. The technique, inspired by graph theory’s Eulerian path, has enabled the team to consistently print functional on rheumatic soft robots with embedded control circuits. The implications of this technology in soft robotics are vast. The gripper can be integrated into robotic arms for various industrial applications, such as manufacturing, food processing, and handling delicate fruits and vegetables. It also has potential in the field of study and exploration, where robots must safely interact with humans and fragile objects.
Moreover, the gripper can operate untethered, utilizing a bottle of high-pressure gas as its power source. The fabrication process of this electronics-free gripper requires no post-treatment, post-assembly, or fault rectification, making it highly reproducible and accessible. This novel approach marks a significant step towards creating complex, customized robotic systems and components at distributed fabricating facilities.
The research team’s study abstract highlights their successful approach in designing and fabricating soft, airtight pneumatic robotic devices using fused filament fabrication (FFF) 3D printing. This approach enables the printing of actuators with embedded fluidic control components, resulting in soft actuators capable of bending into complete circles. The team also printed pneumatic valves that control high-pressure airflow with low control pressure. The culmination of their efforts led to the creation of an autonomous, electronics-free gripper that can detect, grip, and release objects without any additional post-processing or repair, making it highly repeatable and accessible for widespread application in soft robotics.