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Singapore and China researchers propose process flow for 3D printing of miniature soft robotic actuators

A team of researchers from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) and Zhejiang University (ZJU) have jointly suggested a generic process flow for guiding DLP 3D printing of small pneumatic actuators for soft robots.

These robots just require a combination of miniature actuators and can function with just pneumatic pressure. Pneumatic pressure is the pressure that is released by pressurised gas.

These soft robots come within the sizes of 2-15 mm. These miniature soft robots would be very useful for navigating within small and space-restricted areas and for controlling small objects.

The issues faced with creating these small-sized soft robots is the compromise faced with the fine features of the robot.

A high level of detail and delicacy is required when employing traditional methods such as moulding and soft lithography. 3D printing technologies, while a better option, still pose a challenge in handling microscale voids and channels without producing clogging.

This generated generic process flow by the research team seeks to overcome these challenges of 3D printing.

Yuan-Fang Zhang co-first author from SUTD explained the process for creating this process flow. A photo-absorber with good absorbance at the wavelength of the projected UV light was first selected. They next decided on the best material formulation for elasticity, based on mechanical performance tests.

Following that, they determined the best combination of exposure time and sliced layer thickness.

Photo-absorbers used in DLP 3D printing is usually added into polymer solutions for intensifying printing resolutions in every direction. Adding too much of these photo absorbers will result in fast deterioration of the material’s elasticity. Elasticity is key for soft robots to endure large deformations.

The research team has also designed a soft debris remover which is made up of a continuum manipulator and a 3D printed miniature soft pneumatic gripper. These will help the robots to swiftly move through small and restricted spaces and obtain small projects from inaccessible locations.

The incorporation of 3D printed small soft actuators into robotic systems opens doors to the possibilities for future applications in areas such as jet-engine maintenance and for less intrusive surgery procedures.

The use of 3D printing technology is expanding over various industries. It is widely used in the healthcare sector.

OpenGov reported on the use of a 3D bioprinter for replicating tumours, in Australia. This allows researchers to be able to better understand the variables in cancer formation.

Similarly, Australia had its first locally-made 3D printed spinal implant, which was successfully delivered to a patient in 2015.

There also have been other innovations such as the 3D printing of custom implants for bone cancer, 3D imaging for boosting kidney disease diagnosis and treatment, and 3D printed feet for enhancing diabetic treatment.

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