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Soft robotics is a new area for many people. The idea of making soft robots out of soft parts could potentially bring about an entirely new way of constructing robots. Rather than having a rigid robot with lots of steel parts, flexible pneumatics could move a robot. Rather than a conventional battery and actuator, a 3D printed battery on a material such as TPE could power an actuator made out of PCL. Robots could be powered by chemical reactions, phase changes in materials could move robot legs, electronics could be printed. 3D printing soft robotics could be a way to print most of the circuits and casing of the robot using one device. Smart materials whereby the flexibility of the material could be ‘designed on the fly’ could mean that soft buttons, hard switches and even harder casings could be printed in the same pass. This could radically alter the form factor of robots and perhaps other electronics as well. A new way of making soft things through 3D printing could also usher in a completely new way of manufacturing.

Until now soft robots have mostly been rather distant lab type affairs. Early soft robots such as those created by Evan Malone and Hod Lipson showed back in 2004 that desktop 3D printers could make actuators, evolutionary robots, and soft robots capable of movement. Using syringe 3D printers, the pair (along with others) made batteries, circuits and entire robots (incidentally it was their research that got me interested in 3D printing and led to me being obsessed with it, especially their 3D printed batteries). The team showed us way back in 2004 that one could use a desktop 3D printer to make basic soft robots. These robots had power and could move and were made entirely of 3D printed parts.

An Early Desktop 3D printer in 2004 used to print batteries.

Malone and Lipson were also part of the team that made the Fab@Home 3D printer. The Fab@Home was the first open source desktop 3D printer. They hoped to ignite the desktop 3D printing revolution back then but they were in fact a bit early. They then went on to make robots. They were interested in making these robots evolve and adapt a kind of 3D printed ‘life form’ that would respond to the environment. These life forms could upgrade themselves or be improved over time with newer and better parts. Malone and Lipson’s work inspired a lot of people that came after them. Malone right now has been working on Fablabs for over eight years, bringing the Nextfab makerspaces to Philly. Lipson is a Professor of Data Science and Engineering at Columbia, working on robots that make other robots and other amazing stuff.  He heads up the Creative Machines Lab at Cornell where ideas from biology, evolution and consciousness are combined with software and robotics.

A 3D printed actuator made by Evan Malone and Hod Lipson in 2006.

In the interim, many people have experimented with 3D printed soft robotics and 3D printing more functional robots. This experimentation was often done in labs, however. Soft robotics experimentation has not often been done in the home.

Evan Malone’s 3D printed batteries.

Partially the concept has so far not excited many home and business 3D printer users. It’s also been tricky and a lot more difficult than making Yodas. Some parts require chemicals and things that are very difficult to handle in the home or in most businesses. Another reason that 3D printed soft robotics has fallen behind and essentially not moved much over the past decades is that most of it tends to look a bit goopy and not pretty. The Fab@Home syringe based extruder was supplanted by RepRap style filament printers. The latter were significantly cheaper and let people make reasonably well defined rigid things. The former were much more expensive but could make a wide variety of soft things. The combination of soft robotics and 3D printing is now, ten years on, a potentially exciting one but not one many people are doing work in.

This is why I’m so excited by Aposema. Aposema is a 3D printed soft robotics project by three architects: Silvia Rueda,  Sirou Peng, and Adi Meyer. They’ve made a project that illustrates what soft robotics is and what one can do with it, and given people the instructions on how to do this at home. This will be a great tool in helping people make their own soft robotics at home.

The team made a personalized silicone mask that responds to your facial expressions. To the left you can see the (very nice) chart that shows you the steps the team took to make their mask.

They used Agisoft to scan the face, then used Zbrush to clean up the mesh. They then used Grasshopper and Rhino to make the pattern, then 3D printed out the molds. They then cast this in silicone using Smooth-On. Then they used an Arduino to read the muscle movements. The pumps then move fluid through depending on your expressions. This is a fun illustration of what one could do with 3D printing and soft robotics. I really hope that a lot of people will take up similar projects at home. You can go to Instructables to check out the Instructable.

Aposema Mask from APOSEMA on Vimeo.

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