Engineers have achieved a groundbreaking advancement in 3D inkjet printing systems, enabling the fabrication of hybrid structures with both soft and rigid components. These developments are particularly significant in the creation of robotic grippers, which require the strength to grasp heavy objects while maintaining the softness for safe human interaction.
Advancements in Multimaterial 3D Printing Systems
These innovative 3D printing systems use thousands of nozzles to deposit minute droplets of resin, which are then smoothed and cured using UV light. However, traditional smoothing methods have limitations, particularly with resins that cure slowly. To address this, researchers from MIT, Inkbit (an MIT spinout), and ETH Zurich have developed a new 3D inkjet printing system that accommodates a broader range of materials.
Revolutionizing Printing with Computer Vision
The new printer uses computer vision to automatically scan the printing surface, adjusting the resin deposit in real-time. This approach eliminates the need for mechanical parts to smooth the resin, enabling the use of slower-curing materials that offer improved properties like elasticity, durability, and longevity. This system notably maintains its speed and efficiency throughout the printing process, making it significantly faster than comparable systems.
Creating Complex Robotic Devices
Researchers have utilized this technology to create intricate robotic devices, merging soft and rigid materials. A notable example is a 3D-printed robotic hand, complete with reinforced tendons, showcasing the system’s ability to handle complex designs and material integration.
Machine Vision and Active Feedback: A New Era in Printing
Co-corresponding author Wojciech Matusik, a professor at MIT, highlights the significance of this development, likening it to giving a printer “eyes and a brain.” This advancement allows for intricate design and functionality, previously unattainable in 3D printing. The system’s precision and versatility are further demonstrated through the creation of devices like a six-legged walking robot with sensory and grasping capabilities.
Expanding Material Horizons
The new system enables printing with thiol-based materials, which offer advantages over traditional acrylates used in 3D printing. These materials are more elastic, durable, and stable, making them ideal for real-world interactions and robotic applications.
Researchers have successfully used these materials to fabricate a variety of complex devices, including a functional robotic hand and a heart-like pump with integrated components. They are also exploring the potential of printing with hydrogels, silicon materials, epoxies, and durable polymers for applications like medical devices, semiconductor polishing pads, and more sophisticated robots.
This groundbreaking research has been funded by Credit Suisse, the Swiss National Science Foundation, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the U.S. National Science Foundation, paving the way for a new era in multimaterial 3D printing and its applications in various fields.