Using new 3D printing technology, researchers created a fully functional robotic hand complete with sensors for grasping objects.
Researchers from ETH Zurich, MIT, and the MIT spinout Inkbit have developed a new 3D inkjet printing system that can print complex and fully operational robotic devices using soft and rigid materials.
The novel system enabled researchers to 3D print a fully functional hand with artificial bones, ligaments, and tendons.
The new printing technology — described in a paper published on November 15 in Nature — is based on a multi-material 3D printer called MultiFab, which can simultaneously print objects using up to 10 materials.
To expand on this and create more complex robotic devices, the researchers developed a technique called Vision Controlled Jetting, which uses computer vision to watch the printing process and adjust the amount of materials used. Using this technology, the scientists could fabricate complex devices with thiol-based materials and wax — something they could not previously do with typical 3D printing systems.
The new system can create assembled robotic structures from multiple materials, which emerge from the printer fully operational and ready to complete tasks.
One of those devices was a robotic hand complete with 19 functional tendons, rigid bones, and soft fingers with sensor pads. The printing system also embedded sensor cavities, which allowed full functionality immediately after the hand left the printer.
The team also printed a heart-like device with artificial valves, ventricles, and an integrated pump.
"This is just the start. There is an amazing number of new types of materials you can add to this technology. This allows us to bring in whole new material families that couldn't be used in 3D printing before," said co-corresponding author Wojciech Matusik, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT.
Matusik also leads the Computational Design and Fabrication Group within the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).
The researchers say they plan to use the new 3D printing technology to create hydrogels that mimic body tissues, custom medical devices, and more complex robots.
What is the future of 3D printing in medicine?
In addition to printing artificial bones, tendons, and ligaments, there may be other uses for 3D printing technology in the medical field. For example, Biotech companies are already using 3D printers to create medications. In 2015, the FDA approved a 3D-printed drug used to treat epilepsy called Spritam (levetiracetam).
Companies also use 3D printing technology to manufacture medical devices such as hip joints and prosthetic hands.
In addition, other applications currently under investigation include 3D-printed organs such as ears, corneas, and skin.