Soft robotics – the future of manufacturing engineering?
09 May 2017
Soft robotics allow for a delicate touch, mimicking human movement combined with the increased accuracy of robots
One of the first attempts at humanoid robot design took place in 1495, when Leonardo Da Vinci developed the mechanical knight. The robot was designed to make several human-like motions, but it was not until the 1990s, when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) invented Kismet, the world’s first sociable robot.
Over the years, the manufacturing industry has looked towards these humanoid robots in optimising productivity in the sector, leading to the creation of soft robots. But what are the applications of soft robotics in manufacturing and how might the technology impact other sectors in the future?
In manufacturing, automation is embedded in the factory assembly line and completes repetitive, laborious tasks. However, some sectors require robots for more delicate tasks that have previously relied on the work of the human hand.
Manufacturers may need machinery that is more efficient than both a human and a bulkier machine. Certain tasks require higher levels of accuracy, which human workers cannot replicate consistently.
Soft robots deliver the consistency required and can also do the jobs that may cause human injury, such as repetitive strain injury (RSI), further improving productivity and reducing risk to employees.
Soft or hard robots?
Conventional, hard robots are rigid, metal and used for repetitive, heavy-duty tasks that involve little adaptation. Soft robots, however, are silicone or plastic robots powered by air pressure, that manipulate their actions to fit different applications. Soft robot designers took inspiration from human and animalistic behaviour to create natural, fluid movements.
While manufacturers still use hard robots in mass production, there are some jobs that require more precision. As soft robots are more precise than larger machines, they can grasp objects that their bulkier counterpart would struggle with, to complete more intricate tasks.
Soft robots can easily integrate into manufacturing operations as they can perform tasks that industrial, hard robots cannot. They will not replace conventional robots as the lighter materials they are made with cannot lift the same weight.
Instead, they can perform new tasks or improve original factory robots by giving them new capabilities as the softer materials can dampen impact and improve shock absorbance to optimise machine efficiency.
Designers create robots with silicone covered metal tentacles that cover and grasp the object. The robot can estimate the size and shape of the object through sensors, allowing it to adapt its movements from the sensory data to pick up the objects.
Soft robots are more durable than hard robots due to the materials used. Researchers have designed soft robots to withstand heat, water and heavy weights. Under pressure, a soft robot can distribute the weight, deform under the pressure, squeeze out of gaps and then return to its original shape. This increases their reliability on the factory floor as they can operate efficiently in an environment with heavy goods.
Often the robots are controlled by water and air pressure, allowing them to operate under conditions that electrical equipment would not be able to withstand. This is particularly useful for manufacturers that use flammable or toxic chemicals during the manufacturing process.
Recent discoveries regarding the potential of soft robotics has led to some farmers using the technology in food handling to improve efficiency in the agricultural sector. These robots can plant and cultivate crops without causing damage that metal, computer controlled robotics would cause.
To reduce damage further and avoid error, soft robots can establish an interaction between the gripper, the object and the environment. This helps farmers and food retailers meet customer demand while lowering cost and becoming a more competitive company.
Online food retailer, Ocado uses soft robotics to pick food for deliveries. A robotic hand, controlled by air pressure, grasps the food object sensitively and places it in packaging. This technology is not only more efficient than a human hand, but it also reduces waste caused by bruising fresh produce.
US food manufacturer, Taylor Farms, also uses soft robots to package its produce. Gripper end attachments on the soft robots handle delicate fruits and vegetables without damage.
Soft robots are versatile as manufacturers can program them to work with different product specifications, unlike conventional robots that can only do specific tasks. Soft robots also function without electricity, meaning that they can safely be washed, which eliminates ergonomic risks, making soft robots beneficial to food manufacturing plants.
Soft robotics is in the early stages of development and other sectors must invest to allow the mass production and industry-wide use of the technology. To get the best use out of them, manufacturers need to develop the technology to carry out more advanced actions and become more intelligent and autonomous.
Some hospitals have discovered the versatility of soft robots and have started using the technology in assisted surgery. The supple, soft material allows for more accuracy and intricate work in direct contact with humans, which improves the efficiency of the surgery.
Soft robots are less invasive than conventional medical equipment, which helps minimise the risk of inaccuracy. Further development in this technology could drastically improve surgeries.
There are also sectors that do not currently use soft robots but could benefit from them in the future. Companies producing soft robots, such as Soft Robotics inc., hope other sectors will adopt this technology in the future. It has even been predicted that these robots could benefit space exploration, service robotics and search and rescue teams. The soft, mouldable materials used in soft robots can adapt to any environment, which broadens the possible applications that could be improved by this technology.
Universities also support the future of soft robots and their potential in new applications. The Harvard Biodesign Lab created the Soft Robotics Toolkit to encourage researchers to collaborate on ideas and designs to realise the future developments of the technology.
Robotic technology has drastically changed since the design of the mechanical knight. If manufacturers fully invest in the development of soft robotics, it may go on to benefit a multitude of sectors.
Jonathan Wilkins, marketing director, industrial automation equipment supplier EU Automation