Swiss Federal Institute of Technology

Robotics 3D-Printed robotic hand with functional tendons and muscles unveiled.

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In a groundbreaking development, researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and MIT have unveiled a 3D printer that transcends traditional limitations, giving rise to lifelike robots with fully functional tendons and muscles. This revolutionary 3D printing technology introduces a paradigm shift, enabling the creation of intricate systems that seamlessly blend bendy and rigid materials.

Unlike conventional 3D printers that rely on fast-curing plastics, this innovative device harnesses the power of slow-curing polymers. The result is a robotic hand, complete with bones, ligaments, and tendons, showcasing the potential of this technology in the realm of soft robotics. The slow-curing polymers offer superior elastic properties, allowing the printed structures to quickly return to their original state after bending—a feat unattainable with fast-curing plastics. The key to this transformative process lies in a 3D laser sensor array developed by MIT researchers, enabling the printer to “see” and adjust for irregularities in real time during the printing process. This eliminates the need for post-curing imperfection scraping, streamlining the production of intricate and lifelike robotic components.

Thomas Buchner, a lead author of the study and robotics researcher at ETH Zurich, emphasizes the significance of using slow-curing polymers: “We wouldn’t have been able to make this hand with the fast-curing polyacrylates we’ve been using in 3D printing so far.” The technology offers improved flexibility, making it suitable for applications ranging from prosthetics to industries requiring robots to handle fragile goods. The potential applications of this 3D printing breakthrough extend to prosthetics, where soft robotics can offer enhanced safety and comfort. The advantages of robots made of soft materials, as demonstrated by the 3D-printed hand, include reduced risk of injury when collaborating with humans and increased suitability for handling delicate objects.

As this technology paves the way for more complex structures, researchers envision a future where 3D-printed soft robotics play a pivotal role in various industries. Commercially available through a startup called Inkbit, this 3D printer marks a significant evolution in the world of additive manufacturing, bridging the gap between rigid and flexible structures and shaping the future of robotics.

By Alex Wilkins. 15 November 2023. 3D-printed robotic hand has working tendons and muscles.