3D printed robots are nigh with the creation of life-like tentacles

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3D printing seems to very much be the technology of the moment: Our very own Al Dean has a 3D printer in his man shed that he has been tinkering away on building various parts, not to mention a motorbike project which will be featuring in the magazine very soon.

However, I must admit that of the various 3D printing applications hearing of an ‘artificial muscle’ is a first for me.

Designers and engineers are increasingly interested in using 3D printing to fabricate functional items. For example, the possibility of being able to print a complete working robot (including structure, electronics, sensors and actuators) has been the subject of recent discussions.

In fact, scientists and engineers at MIT have recently secured funding for a large-scale research project to investigate this topic.

Within the 3D Printing Laboratory Centre for Fine Print Research at the University of the West of England, Dr Peter Walters, a research fellow, and his associate David McGoran have been working on an interdisciplinary research project investigating how smart materials technologies, together with 3D printing, might be creatively exploited within art and design applications. Together they have fabricated smart robotic tentacles on an Objet 3D printer

Walters describes how this 3D printed tentacle represents a step towards the first complete 3D printed robot: “The tentacle structure is fabricated in a soft, 3D printed elastomer material (Objet Geometries, TangoPlus Plus material). The structure includes internal cavities, which are designed to accommodate shape memory alloy ‘artificial muscles’ that contract like a muscle when stimulated by an electric current. The combination of this soft structure together with ‘smart’ artificial muscles enables the tentacle to move in a life-like way.”


“The future implications of this work are wide ranging from applications in ‘soft robotics’ and medical devices to ‘smart’ interactive art and children’s toys,” adds Walters.

For more information, the academic paper detailing the project, which was presented at IS&T Digital Fabrication 2011, can be downloaded here.

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