How 3D Printing Helps Advance Soft Robotics

Innovations in 3D printing and soft robotics have created structures that are able to grab small objects and perform very precise actions such as carrying water droplets.The advancements in 3D printing seem to happen weekly. Not only can this technology print traditional solid and rigid parts and objects, but it can now also fabricate soft and flexible mesh structures for various uses.

3D printing, as innovative as it is, is actually promoting other innovations as it becomes more complex. It is enabling life science and medicine to advance by giving it a new tool to use in so many different ways.

Researchers at North Carolina State University are leading the way in this new development. They have innovated 3D printing to create structures that are able to grab small objects and perform very precise actions such as carrying water droplets.

This gives the mesh structures the capability to act as soft robots and actually mimic creatures that live on water surfaces. Such creatures can also be used to animate or perform various actions that were not possible before the 3D printing evolution.

In fact, the same technology used to fabricate the printed flexible mesh can also serve as scaffolds for tissue and cell cultures.

Soft Robots for Flexible Performance

Soft robots are created from complex specialty materials that mimic those found in living organisms. In contrast to traditional robots built from rigid materials, soft robots have the flexibility and adaptability to be more agile and complete more tasks.

Using soft robots, scientists have developed new ways to explore biological science and perform better research. "This research shows capabilities in the emerging field of combining 3D printing and soft robotics," said Orlin Velev, S. Frank and Doris Culberson distinguished professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at North Carolina State and corresponding author of a paper describing the research.

Complex 3D Printing

Let’s examine how the research team created these structures:

  1. They began with an ink that was derived from silicone microbeads. These beads were bound by liquid silicone and contain water.
  2. The ink had a semblance to toothpaste that could be squeezed out of a tube; they used the substance as a feedstock in a 3D printer to shape the paste into the mesh-like patterns.
  3. The patterns were then baked or cured in an oven where they became a very flexible silicone structure.
  4. This structure can be controlled best by using stretching and collapsing methods activated by the use of magnetic fields.

By applying magnetic fields, the flexible mesh can actually grab a structure such as a tiny ball of aluminum foil. It can carry something as small as a single water droplet and subsequently release that object on demand through the mesh.

For North Carolina State researchers, this is a major milestone in the use of soft robotics as it combines the value afforded by 3D printing to create quite complex and finite element structures.

Remarkably, these structures not only perform actions, but can also carry out micro-actions in the same way that an insect might move across water.

Tissue Engineering

The innovation and technology that they developed can also be transferred into biomedical applications to provide underlying structure for tissue compositions. It may be quite instrumental in aiding scientists and medical researchers in creating different tissues and biological cell structures that could be used in the human body.

These developments aid an entirely new frontier of biomedical engineering: tissue engineering. In tissue engineering, complex scaffolds are used to fabricate tissue which the human body may be unable to produce organically on its own.

With tissue engineering, tissue may be renewed, developed, or repaired. This segment of science is incipient but growing and utilizes different disciplines of life science and medicine, including:

  • Biology
  • Biochemistry
  • Clinical medicine
  • Materials science.

It's potential is huge when one considers the remarkable things it may aid - such as organ transplants and regeneration of tissue such as cartilage or muscle - which can be life-changing for many.

Thanks to additive manufacturing, 3D printing in its most finite and complex form, such scaffolding and tissue design is becoming a more likely reality.

The entire disruptive force of using mesh structures, created from 3D printing processes, only further demonstrates the vast array of new capabilities that are now possible when they weren't before.

In the future, we should see this technology develop to even greater levels and to combine the fields of biomedical engineering with research science for humans as well as other life science applications.