Not only is self-assembly bot manufacturing inexpensive, they’re faster to build and easy to transport. The MIT team used a five-legged robot to test the new technique. (Photo from MIT)
Robots have a multitude of uses that can help with various applications, but they’re not necessarily easy to make on a mass scale. It’s a time-consuming task that requires the proper steps to ensure their mechanical parts, electronics, and sensors are installed properly. To help address the issue, researchers have been looking into self-assembling robots, which are easier and faster to build, transport, and deploy. But they have their own difficulties, such as requiring non-standard manufacturing processes, which makes them harder to build in large amounts. Luckily, researchers at MIT believe they may have found a solution using only flexible electronics manufacturing processes.
This new manufacturing technique uses standard industrial machines, processes, and materials. They achieved this by using a lamination process to integrate air pouches or shape memory alloy (SMA) inside a polyamide-based flexible circuit to create bending actuators. The bend angle of the actuators is determined with a chain of inertial measurement units integrated on the actuator. Air-pouch actuators can then produce a force of a 2.24N, and a maximum bend angle of 74 degrees.
They tested the process by creating a five-legged robot equipped with the developed actuators and bend sensors. All the required electronics, such as microcontrollers and radio, were directly integrated into the flexible printed circuit. Because these robots are flat and lightweight, they can be folded for transportation and storage.
Though the manufacturing process is simpler, it has its own set of limitations. Some of the materials used, such as the copper traces and polyimide, don’t hold up over repeated stress. The team found the copper traces to crack after repeated bends and the polyimide to not stretch as much as needed. Also, the technique can only work with certain materials. All the materials have to be able to withstand high temperatures up to 220 degrees C along with high pressure during the lamination and reflow. The team plans to experiment with other materials to improve the process.
Researchers believe this technique can be used for other applications aside from robots. They suggest the process can be used to create new wearable devices that conform to the body and can inflate on demand. They also envision it being used to build three-dimensional electronic circuits eliminating the need for post-processing. Still, they remain hopeful that the technique will improve the manufacturing of robots to for a process that is fast and inexpensive.
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