March 6, 2916
Building robots is so hard that they’re still far from affordable as kitchen helpers. But a new way to make them is emerging. When a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology wanted a tiny, complicated hydraulic robot, they turned to 3D printing.

The robot was printed in one piece, except for its motor. It moves by forcing liquid through thin channels that are incorporated into the structure of its six legs. There’s very little assembly, and no wasted material.

Nicholas Bartlett of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences says 3D printing is useful because it offers fine control of the robot’s internals. He and his team have used it to make a soft robot that can inflate its legs and launch itself six times its own height into the air.

However, the technique still doesn’t produce reliable structures, says Paul Beardsley at Disney Research in Zurich, Switzerland. In building a four-wheeled bot that can drive up walls, Beardsley’s team used 3D printing for the wheels to get a working prototype quickly.

But Beardsley says he would not make 3D printed components the standard option, at least not yet: the parts can deform in the sun, or cease to be waterproof. Until 3D printed objects toughen up, materials like aluminium are the better bet, he says.

Still, in situations where a quick fix is needed, 3D printing could be the answer. It would allow general-purpose robots to adapt to any situation, for example. “There’s been some talk of robots that essentially carry along a 3D printer on their backs so they can go into an environment, assess what they need to do and then print out whatever manipulator or tool they need on the spot,” says Bartlett.

Meanwhile, printing is becoming popular with home roboticists. The Poppy Project distributes 3D printable designs for modular robots, for example. And people around the world have printed e-NABLE robotic hands, obtaining a prosthesis for the cost of the materials only – a few tens of dollars, a tiny fraction of the usual cost of a prosthesis.

“We’re on the cusp of something not just with 3D printing, but with robots in general,” says Beardsley. “This is really the beginning of mobile robots appearing in the world.”


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