Illustration of 3d printed skeleton 3d printing industry


July 3, 2014

The study of soft robotics offer distinct advantages to yesterday’s metal clunkers, in that soft machines have greater locomotion and flexibility, with a potentially lower cost.  And, while some people – excluding Ray Kurzweil and friends – could harbor fears about a future in which such robotics are incorporated into human biology, bio-compatible machines have the potential to replace worn out parts of the body.  Recent progress has been made in stimulating engineered heart cells through the use of robotics, but we have yet to see much development in skeletal muscle, the primary means for movement in organisms, until now. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign have just published a paper detailing a 3D printed, artificial tendon controlled by real muscle cells.  Part 3D printed hydrogel, part mouse muscle, the bio-bots from U of I are miniature muscular cyborgs that might have a huge impact in the fields of medicine and soft robotics.

3D Printed Joint w Muscle Cells 3D Printing IndustryThe researchers sought to create soft robotics that did not rely on cumbersome hardware that might carry a risk of bodily rejection.  Their solution was to 3D print, using a 3D Systems SLA 3D printer, a flexible hydrogel skeleton with two protruding polls, between which they could seed mouse muscle cells. After placing the skeleton, coated with muscle cells, into a petri dish with a bi-polar electrical field, the team was able to stimulate the muscle cells to contract by giving them an electrical pulse.

While the U of I team had to experiment with different 3D printed designs to ultimately stimulate the object to contract properly, they realized that, by altering the porosity of the object, they could change its flexibility (a more flexible design in the video below).  Moreover, 3D printing the skeleton allows the researchers to change the scale and shape of the artificial joint to customize it for a particular part of the body.  They may even be able to design the hydrogel object to create more surfaces on which to grow the muscle cells.

The researchers believe that they may be able to replicate the experiment using motor neurons themselves, instead of the electrical bath, and could potentially use an endothelium to deliver food and oxygen and contain the entire system in an epithelial layer, meaning that these bio-bots could one day be incorporated into an actual body.  Until that day, the authors of the paper believe that their studies could help us understand the structures of organisms.  In the medium-term, they may assist researchers with testing pharmaceuticals or creating implants less likely to be rejected by a given immune system.

Good news for soft roboticists everywhere! Good news for organic life? Ray Kurzweil would say yes. Would you?


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