Concept for soft robot limb with distributed,
monolithically-fabricated linear actuators
and interconnects.

Printed Robotics. With funding from NSF under the National Robotics Initiative, LAMRA is pursuing research at the intersection of three rapidly-developing fields: 3-D printing, soft robotics, and printed electronics. The objective is to develop a new additive manufacturing technology that will allow for the first time the direct, automated manufacturing of integrated, multi-material devices such as soft robots with embedded actuators, sensors, and circuitry.

The challenge of manufacturing soft robotic components that include a large number of distributed actuators, sensors, and associated circuitry can be economically approached by 3-D printing multiple materials simultaneously. Today’s 3-D printing can only build structures from a single class of material (e.g., a polymer or a metal). Overcoming this limitation would be transformative and enable a wide range of sophisticated, active structures to be readily fabricated.

The results of this research will lead to a new manufacturing process for soft robots, an emerging class of devices promising greater safety, better manipulation of delicate and irregular objects, the ability to squeeze through small openings in search and rescue operations, new forms of locomotion, etc. Beyond robotics, applications of the research include active prosthetics, minimally-invasive surgical instruments, and smart implants, as well as soft and wearable electronics.

The focus of the NSF project is to design, prototype, characterize, and optimize the new technology, and to design, simulate, build, and test an electromagnetic actuator and capacitive sensor made using the process. A “robot printer” testbed is in development, along with software to control it.