Technology 3 min read

New Automated System Designs and 3D Prints Actuators

An MIT team developed a system that automatically produces robotic actuators based on a large number of variables, a task that humans can’t do by hand.

Image courtesy of MIT

Image courtesy of MIT

Whether electrical, pneumatic, or hydraulic, actuators for robots are the counterpart of muscles for humans and animals.

Actuators are mechanical devices that in response to the energy provided, mostly as electrical signals, control mechatronic systems, by generating a physical movement.

Making the ideal actuator for a given purpose is a complex process because of the enormous number of specifications that have to be checked. Robotic systems and their actuators are getting more and more complex.

But MIT engineers have thought of an ingenious system that almost automates the fabrication process of actuators completely.

Optimal Actuators, Automatically Made

Researchers at MIT created an automated system that takes care of everything, from selecting printing material to finding the optimal design, to the 3D printing of complex robotic parts.

The system optimizes the actuators based on many specifications in a way that’s “virtually impossible for humans to do by hand.”

To showcase the system, the team used it to make actuators that show different black-and-white images according to the tilt angle. They also made floating water lilies with petals that, thanks to arrays of actuators, can fold up when magnetic fields run through conductive fluids.

Below is an actuator that when laid flat shows a portrait of Vincent van Gogh. But when tilted, it gets activated to portray Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream.”

Sample from the actuators 3D-printed by MIT researchers
Image courtesy of MIT News

Software takes into account appearance, magnetization, flexibility, and many other variables to land on the optimal actuator design. First, it breaks the layout down into millions of “voxels,” three-dimensional pixels, that would be filled with different materials. After running millions of simulations, it decides the right voxel for the right material. Finally, a custom 3D printer, voxel by voxel and layer by layer, fabricates the actuator.

“We’re comparing what that [voxel column] looks like when it’s flat or when it’s titled, to match the target images,” first author Subramanian Sundaram says. “If not, you can swap, say, a clear voxel with a brown one. If that’s an improvement, we keep this new suggestion and make other changes over and over again.”

MIT researchers think of underwater robots with their skin coated in complex arrays of actuators optimized for any of the functions and properties needed, like efficient dragging and turning.

“The shifting images demonstrate what the system can do. But actuators optimized for appearance and function could also be used for biomimicry in robotics. For instance, other researchers are designing underwater robotic skins with actuator arrays meant to mimic denticles on shark skin. Denticles collectively deform to decrease drag for faster, quieter swimming.” 

Read More: New Voxel-Based 3D Printing Method Creates Ultra High-Definition Objects

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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