Engineers just created a single-step, all-in-one 3D printing method to make robots

'Users could make their models and print the materials into a robot.'
Deena Theresa
A 3D-printed 'meta-bot' developed by UCLA engineers.Rayne Research Group / UCLA

Regardless of their size, the making of most robots involves a series of complex manufacturing steps that integrate the limbs with electronic and active components. The entire process results in heavier weights and bulkier volumes. Which is bad.

But now, a team of UCLA engineers and their colleagues have developed a new design strategy and 3D printing technique to build robots in one single step, according to a new study published in the journal Science.

And, incredibly, the tiny robots can "walk, maneuver and jump", according to an embargoed release shared with IE.

The 'meta-bot' is made of piezoelectric metamaterials

The new process enabled a robot to be manufactured all at once by a new type of 3D printing process for engineered active materials with multiple functions (known as a metamaterial). Once 3D printed, the "meta-bot" will be capable of different tasks — decision-making, movement, sensing, and propulsion.

Central to the all-in-one method is the design and printing of piezoelectric metamaterials — "a class of intricate lattice materials that can change shape and move in response to an electric field or create electrical charge as a result of physical forces", according to the embargoed release.

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Using active materials that can translate electricity to motions isn't new. But these materials are limited in their range of motion and distance of travel. Contrastingly, the UCLA-developed robotic materials consist of intricate piezoelectric and structural elements that can bend, flex, twist, expand or contract at high speeds.

3D-printed lattice
A 3D-printed lattice of piezoelectric metamaterials, which form the basis of the UCLA-developed "meta-bot." Source: Rayne Research Group/UCLA

'Could replace the current complex assembly process for making a robot'

The printed metamaterials comprise an internal network of sensory, moving, and structural movements. They can move by themselves with programmed commands. The only external component required is a small battery to power the robot.

"We envision that this design and printing methodology of smart robotic materials will help realize a class of autonomous materials that could replace the current complex assembly process for making a robot," said the study’s principal investigator Xiaoyu (Rayne) Zheng, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, and of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering. "With complex motions, multiple modes of sensing, and programmable decision-making abilities all tightly integrated, it’s similar to a biological system with the nerves, bones, and tendons working in tandem to execute controlled motions."

The autonomous operation of the 3D robots — each the size of a fingernail — was demonstrated with the integration of an onboard battery and controller.

These "meta-bots" could lead to new designs for biomedical robots that can navigate and deliver drug doses at specific target sites in the body. They could also explore hazardous environments.

The robotic materials can sense dangers and detect obstacles

Additionally, the team had also presented a methodology to design these robotic materials so that users could make their models and print the materials into a robot.

"This allows actuating elements to be arranged precisely throughout the robot for fast, complex, and extended movements on various types of terrain," said the study’s lead author Huachen Cui, a UCLA postdoctoral scholar in Zheng’s Additive Manufacturing and Metamaterials Laboratory. "With the two-way piezoelectric effect, the robotic materials can also self-sense their contortions, detect obstacles via echoes and ultrasound emissions, as well as respond to external stimuli through a feedback control loop that determines how the robots move, how fast they move, and toward which target they move." 

The team built and demonstrated three “meta-bots” with different capabilities. One can navigate around S-shaped corners and obstacles, another can escape in response to a contact impact, and the third can walk over rough terrain and make small jumps.

Building a robot has never been easier. If robotics sounded daunting previously, such technology can only assure otherwise.

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