One of the flexoskeletons developed with the new 3D-printing method. (Image: UCSD)

Instead of adding soft materials to a rigid robot body, researchers have taken a soft body and added rigid features to key components. The structures were inspired by insect exoskeletons, which have both soft and rigid parts. The “flexoskeletons” could lead to the creation of a new class of soft, bioinspired robots.

The new method allows for the construction of soft components for robots in a small fraction of the time previously needed and for a small fraction of the cost. Large groups of flexoskeleton robots could be built with little manual assembly and a library of Lego-like components could enable robot parts to be easily swapped.

The flexoskeletons are made from 3D-printing a rigid material on a thin sheet that acts as a flexible base. They are printed with various features that increase rigidity in specific areas — again inspired by insect exoskeletons, which combine softness and rigidity for movement and support.

One flexoskeleton component takes 10 minutes to print and costs less than $1.00. Flexoskeleton printing can be done on most low-cost commercially available printers. Printing and assembling a whole robot takes less than two hours.

The researchers surveyed a range of materials until they found the right flexible surface to print the flexoskeletons on — a sheet of polycarbonate. Careful observation of insect behavior led them to add features to increase rigidity.

The ultimate goal is to create an assembly line that prints whole flexoskeleton robots without any need for hand assembly. A swarm of these small robots could do as much work as one massive robot on its own — or more. The researchers plan to make the designs available to researchers at other institutions as well as high schools.

Watch the robot in action on Tech Briefs TV here. For more information, contact Ioana Patringenaru at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; 858-822-0899.