This week Oxford Robotics were visited by Stratasys, the 3D printing experts, to install their state-of-the-art J735 printer – an essential research tool for the Soft Robotics Lab.

It’s “the best polyjet multi material 3D printer on the market”, according to Perla Maiolino, head of the Soft Robotics Lab: “This printer can print a wider range of materials and colours with horizontal build layers down to 14 microns. The ability to mix materials together allows us to get desired mechanical properties and colours for any object.” Stratasys brought a couple of example pieces with them to demonstrate the potential for life-like colour, variable stiffness parts, and internal channels. The results were certainly impressive!

  

The new multi-material 3D printer is an important piece of research equipment for the Soft Robotics Lab, allowing soft robots to be designed and manufactured with complex structures, novel behaviours and capabilities.

Part of the research activities will also include design and development of artificial skin for providing robots with a sense of touch: “We will be working with Stratasys and experimenting with new conductive materials before they go on the market, but in the meantime we can design parts with pathways which will be metallized to integrate electronic sensors.”

“For research we want to push the boundary of the ‘normal’ usage of the printer. One example is that soft robots can be actuated pneumatically or hydraulically with pressurised chambers. I am looking to use soluble support material to create these chambers. Soluble support material is enclosed by insoluble structure, and ‘washed away’ later in the process, similar to wax casting, creating the voids and channels which activate the robot.

Another area of research is investigating mechanical intelligent structures which allow the robot to achieve behaviours passively, without the need for complicated control algorithms. This concept, “Morphological Computation”, has been already explored in research with the Passive Walker, and a passive piano playing hand developed with colleagues in Cambridge.”

With our new summer internship student, we plan to design a robotic gripper which incorporates variable stiffness, tactile sensing and hydraulic actuation, taking inspiration from the human finger.