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Fabrication tech and 3D printing to produce device with human-like dexterity

Researchers at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Engineering are aiming to answer certain questions that have been given a significant research boost in the latest round of Te Pūtea Rangahau a Marsden/Marsden funding.

These questions are:

  1. Can we make robotic devices that have the human-like dexterity of, for instance, our little finger?
  2. How will the sand dunes on our coastlines be affected by climate change?

As reported, Dr Tim Giffney has been awarded NZ$ 300,000 to develop a fabrication technology that could allow for the 3D printing, or Additive Manufacturing, of a mechatronic device that is more like a biological system.

Meanwhile, Dr Colin Whittaker has been awarded NZ$ 300,000 for research that aims to better understand the impact of different types of waves on coastal dunes.

Mechatronic device research

A mechatronic device consists of structural parts that are combined with the transducers, which are the sensors and/or actuators that give a device its functionality.

Until now, the parts and the transducers have had to be produced separately and then combined in the final assembly.

However, it would be better to develop a 3D printing process in which the functioning devices could be fabricated in one process, with the circuitry and transducers already built inside structural parts.

This could allow for the manufacturing of devices wherein the different parts of the whole more closely resemble the level of integration seen in biological systems.

The first part of the project involves developing the single-step printing of piezoelectric transducers.

Piezoelectric materials are materials that have the ability to generate internal electrical charge from applied mechanical stress.

People can produce large complex systems, such as vehicles, and small complex systems, such as microchips.

Fabrication technology

However, there is still a need to develop a fabrication technology that will allow the creation of devices that are capable of doing what people can.

This could help create devices that achieve the close combination of sensing, or the nerves of the fingertip; actuation, or the muscle; and mechanical structure, or the skin and bond, found in nature.

Coastal and sand dunes research

Nature is also the focus of Dr Whittaker’s research, particularly the coastal sand dunes found in nature.

Apart from being an important ecological habitat, they shield some of the most intensively populated regions on earth from the ravages of ocean storms.

They provide one of the last barriers against the impact of climate change but are also extremely vulnerable to it.

He shared that coastlines are formed and re-shaped by the force of the wind and currents but as sea levels rise, they will become increasingly exposed to the impact of waves.

But, not all waves are the same. Some may result in more sediment being deposited on the dune systems while some may lead to erosion of the dunes, or a combination of both.

Use of numerical simulations

He and his team will, under laboratory-controlled conditions, measure the effects of over-wash. This is the flow of water and sediment over a coastal dune during storm events or high seas.

They will then also use numerical simulations to determine the impact of different types of waves on a real-life model.

Doing so will help them to better understand how even small differences in the dune shape may cause the system response to ‘tip’ from erosive to accretionary.

Climate change is likely to affect both the water levels and the storminess of the oceans.

Without detailed knowledge of the erosive or accretionary effect of dune over-wash, the long-term resilience of dune systems to the effects of the changing climate or which systems are most vulnerable cannot be predicted.

This knowledge is needed to underpin the coastal policies that guide the planning and preservation of coastal habitats for future generations.

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