From Unimate (the first robot placed on the factory floor by General Motors) to Roomba™ the robotic vacuum, there is no question that the field of robotics has drastically changed our culture over the past four decades! The industry is estimated to hit $135.4 billion in 2019, according to International Data Corporation. While robots have played an important role across various industries and even in our homes, there is a whole new category of robots, soft robotics, which could cause exponential growth over the next decade.
What Is Soft Robotics?
Since traditional metal and hard plastic robots do not always interact well in real-world situations that require a "gentle touch," there is a need to create robots that are made of more compliant materials such as elastomers, stretchy plastics, silicone and fiber, in order for them to interact more safely and effectively with humans. This allows robots to better perform tasks with “soft” objects such as produce, the human body and even certain manufacturing materials.
These robots also have biomimetic traits that are found in nature which gives them the ability to interact more effectively by adapting to changing situations the way nature does. The goal is for these robots to have the ability to sense and respond to environmental changes automatically, similar to the way humans, animals and plants do.
The commercial growth in soft robotics comes from numerous possibilities offered by these robots to deal with issues that cannot be addressed by traditional robots. There is great promise for soft robotics in several industries!
Applications for Soft Robotics
Some of the potential applications for soft robotics include medical use, warehouse and distribution, agriculture and more. The main advantage being the ability for robots to safely work side-by-side with humans in an operating room or factory floor.
Soft robotics has far-reaching implications in the field of medicine. Some examples include delivering laser-activated drug delivery to patients, using a soft robotic glove to help rehabilitate stroke victims by restoring their dexterity, using these robots in surgeries to help reach difficult areas of a patient’s anatomy and even removing risky tumors without affecting the surrounding healthy tissue.
In warehouses, soft robots are being used more and more. Soft Robotics, Inc., a company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has created pliable grippers that combine automation and vision-guided software, allowing them to pick up various items without complex programming or sensors. These adaptive gripping technologies offer promise to solve some of the limitations of traditional robots on the warehouse floor.
For produce growers, robots are used to pick delicate fruit without damaging it, as well as package frozen food items in extremely cold environments. This use of soft robotics could improve picking efficiency and alleviate worker shortages during prime growing seasons. One innovation is a robotic gripping system that has the same dexterity as a human hand, making it able to adapt to the shape of the fruit and grip it securely without damaging it.
3D Printing Soft Robotic Components
All of these near-endless soft robotic applications are going to require a near-endless array of tooling and widgets to customize robots for very specialized tasks. By using additive manufacturing to create and prototype these parts, directly in the needed compliant materials, engineers can easily cut down on production costs and time. 3D printing also allows for more detailed design and lighter parts that are able to move with ease and speed.
The Purdue Office of Technology Commercialization has developed 3D printed robotic devices that can be customized, depending on the user’s needs. These robots are created by making CAD files, shaping the robot and designating the types of movements the robot will make. A customized algorithm converts the data into a 3D architected soft machine (ASM).
These ASMs are operated by motors that use nylon to pull the limbs back and forth, allowing it to mimic human locomotion. The soft materials which compose these robots can be stretched to over 900 percent of their initial length.
While traditional hard robots have various uses and have revolutionized many industries, soft robotics offers different applications and opportunities to use robots in ways that are safer and more effective in certain situations. Robots have become part of our everyday life, and soft robots are going to become more important and useful as the technology continues to advance. The 3D printing world could become a vital part of this technological explosion!
Interested in learning more about the growing field of soft robotics? Download the Robotics Inspiration Guide below!