LEI YU, a Ph.D. A student at Tsinghua University in Beijing, he was inspired by the notion of a robot that could 3D print its own plastic shell, similar to how a caterpillar creates a cocoon, in a recent workshop. Yu and a group of engineering students from Tongji University spent three weeks building a custom ‘bot using ready-made 3D printer components, such as those found in a MakerBot, and a Kuka robotic arm, which has been used in applications as diverse as the assembly lines and the Harry Potter ride in Florida.
Physics, on the other hand, quickly broke its artificial euphoria. “We knew right away that a single plastic thread couldn’t cover such a large space,” adds Yu, citing biology as his source of inspiration. “We looked for clues from nature, and the microstructure of spider silk piqued our interest.” He discovered that spider silk is a dynamic filament with nodules scattered at regular intervals, rather than a thin thread. He wanted to be able to do the same.
With a specialized 3D printer, a robot tries to create its own cocoon. Others have used Kuka’s arms to build gravity-defying 3D written works of art, but have done so with brute force methods like thick plastic ropes that quickly harden when exposed to oxygen. Yu’s design ingeniously mimics the spider technique, which requires four strands of liquid plastic to be melted by air to distribute weight and create structural rigidity.
The 3D printer fuses four separate plastic filaments to form a single robust thread. This distinctive material is manufactured with a custom 3D printer mounted on the upper arm of the robot. A filament is extruded from a central hot end, and three additional nozzles dispense support filaments in a parabolic shape. The result is a sublime plastic fabric that does not completely close on the robot, but manages to amaze the public.
Yu and his colleagues plan to apply the patent-pending technique to larger field projects, although even the strongest line can only carry a very light load. “We plan to replace plastic with a stronger material, such as steel or carbon fiber, for advanced development,” Yu explains. “By using that strategy, you can be equipped to carry a genuine load rather than just being overwhelmed by your inherent inclination to carry.”
Development of the robot is ongoing and Yu anticipates a biomimetic breakthrough in the near future. If we can do something with this little KUKA Agilus, we will modify the system to accommodate bigger robots and build something massive. He commented.
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