Engineers from North Carolina State University have created the tech that could one day to lead to robots that can contract, reshape and grab small objects.
Researchers at NC State have revealed how they have created 3D-printed flexible mesh structures which can be controlled with applied magnetic fields while floating on water.
These structures can take hold of small objects and carry water droplets. This gives them the potential to be useful as soft robots that mimic creatures living on water surfaces or that can serve as tissue scaffolds for cell cultures.
This research shows capabilities in the emerging field of combining 3D printing and soft robotics Orlin Velev, S. Frank and Doris Culberson Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at NC State
The team created these structures by making a special “ink” from silicone microbeads. This ink is bound by liquid silicone and contained in water.
The result is a “homo-composite thixotropic paste” which looks like toothpaste. Like toothpaste, it can easily be squeezed out of a tube but keeps its shape on your toothbrush without dripping.
The researchers were then able to use a 3D printer to shape this paste into mesh-like patterns which could then be cured in an oven to create flexible silicone structures. It this end product which the team could then control – stretching and collapsing it – by the applying magnetic fields.
Because the paste contained embedded iron carbonyl particles they highly responsive to magnetization and can be expanded and contracted in all directions. The paste is also buoyant; meaning future soft robots could skim or hop across the water like insects.
At the moment the tech is only at the proof of concept phase but expect to see a lot more about soft robotics in the next decade.