New Electronic Components for Printable Robots that Self-Assemble When Heated

MIT researchers have demonstrated the promise of printable robotic components that, when heated, automatically fold into prescribed three-dimensional configurations. The researchers presented two papers at this year's IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation. One paper describes a system that takes a digital specification of a 3D shape - such as a computer-aided design, or CAD, file - and generates the 2D patterns that would enable a piece of plastic to reproduce it through self-folding. The other paper explains how to build electrical components from self-folding laser-cut materials. The researchers present designs for resistors, inductors, and capacitors, as well as sensors and actuators - the electromechanical 'muscles' that enable robots' movements. A key element of the research is a technique for precisely controlling the angles at which a heated sheet folds. A sheet of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is sandwiched between two films of a rigid polyester riddled with slits of different widths. When heated, the PVC contracts, and the slits close. Where edges of the polyester film press up against each other, they deform the PVC.