So far, the journey of 3D printing and rapid prototyping technology has been amazing. By dint of rapid prototyping, scientists and researchers from all possible sectors are creating innovative products that can potentially change how we manufacture in the present and future. Almost every important sector such as medical, automotive, education, naval engineering, construction and aerospace are reaping the benefits of rapid prototyping. Independent hobbyists are making the most amazing figures with 3D printers that fit perfectly on the average person’s desktop. So far, 3D printing has been working wonders, and we cannot help but wonder what is going to come next. In the artificial intelligence niche too, rapid prototyping has helped researchers make better prototyped robots avoiding the many iterations needed to produce the perfect one. However, rapid prototyping all but produces dumb models of things, for real production and manufacturing, the technology to rely on is 3D printing.
The latest innovation of the rapid prototyping and 3D printing industry however, has been ‘sluggish’, and we are not meaning slow at all! Case Western Reserve University now boasts the creation of robot slugs that were built with the help of 3D printing. The research team at the university created a robot that was made in combination of two things- the actual muscle of a sea slug along with a 3D printed flexible polymer made body. The length of the robot is just about five centimeters or two inches, however, this little robot has some really important implications for the scientific community.
The lead researcher of the project, Victoria Webster, who also happens to be a PhD student at Case Western Reserve University, told in a statement that the team has been busy building what they call a living machine. This robot happens to be a biohybrid- made in combination of both organic and inorganic materials. Even though it has not been a completely organic process, the team believes that they sure are getting there.
Instead of going for the conventional rigidity of its actuators, the team wanted to build a pliant robot where the muscle happens to be superior. Another great feature of the robot is that it carries around its own source of fuel, having a greater ratio of power to weight for that reason. This adaptable sea slug can handle almost any factor that might threaten its build such as water salinity, temperature fluctuation and other variables of the environment such as pressure and depth of water.
The initial experiment was done using cells. Later however, the researchers constructed the robot with a soft 3D printed polymer body; combining the whole buccal mass i.e. I2 muscle extracted from the California sea slug’s mouth area. The muscles undergo contraction and expansion whenever there is an electric field externally applied. This functions as muscle movement for the slugbot for better mobility. The movement speed currently is still rather slow for the robot, only about four millimeters every minute or 0.15 inches. However, the research team has some great plans in the pipeline to build an upgraded version of the slugbot with the help of ganglia- which are neuron and nerve bundles. Ganglia conduct the signals from brain to muscle much like our neurons of the spinal cord work.
Instead of having to make it human controlled, the muscle is going to be able to exhibit movement that would be even more complex. It will also be capable of learning new movements, according to Webster.
Now comes the part where rapid prototyping comes into play. Professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering, director of CWRU Mechanobiology and Tissue Fabrication Lab Ozan Akkus offered help to the research team. At Akkus’ lab, collagen was extracted from the sea slug’s skin by the research team. This created a scaffolding to be used in place of the polymer body made with the help of rapid prototyping for a robot that can be fully organic. Akkus explained that when the team integrates the muscle along with its naturally occurring biological structure, the robot automatically becomes a hundred to a thousand times better.
Some great uses for these robots made with the help of rapid prototyping could be in environmental search missions in places like the depths of oceans, and also in environmental surveillance. As the build material is organic, these would be cost effective to produce in future, at the same time not adding in excessive pollutants to the environment if these robots could not be recovered. These robots are going to give a huge boost to environmentalists for better regulation and better study of the environment in the most eco friendly manner. Rapid prototyping and 3D printing are making lives easier both in the scientific community and for our everyday uses. In future, researchers are moving on towards making fully organic bodied robots that would do zero harm to the environment.
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