EDITOR’S CHOICE: Additive technology sets out to improve on structures from nature

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Elephant Trunk RobotFor the first time humans and machines can work together efficiently and without danger in a single team.

Festo engineers drew their inspiration from the trunk of an elephant to create a bionic handling assistant – and then went on to do better than nature. Their efforts, together with those of partners at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation, earned them the coveted German Futures award – Deutscher Zukunftspreis 2010 – and the quarter of a million Euro prize that goes with it.

“We were originally fascinated by the nature of the elephant’s trunk. With over 40,000 individual muscle fibres, the trunk can move freely in every direction. This inspired us to develop a handling system which goes far beyond anything currently available in industrial automation,” explains Markus Fischer, head of corporate design at Festo.

The freedom of movement even means that the bionic handling assistant can extend from 70cm to 1.1m – something its natural role model cannot achieve.

“For the first time humans and machines can work together efficiently and without danger in a single team. The main innovation lies in the system’s unique human-machine cooperation and its compliance on contact,” says head of research at Festo Dr Peter Post.

In the case of collision, the system’s natural compliance comes into play. First because the assistant is made of lightweight plastic, rather than heavy steel or aluminium and, second, because it is driven by compressed air and regulated by intelligent control technology. The cooperation with Fraunhofer IPA took place on a variety of levels.

“The use of additive manufacturing technologies together with the development of all properties of the assistant is a flowing process which cannot be divided into separate parts,” says Andrej Grzesiak of Fraunhofer.

He says that with 11 degrees of freedom, the assistant is more agile than conventional handling systems. Standing freely, it can reach within a radius of over one metre.

Coupled with its low weight of under 2kg, applications for the bionic handling assistant promise a new dimension of “third-arm functions”, he says. The three-finger laser sintered gripper is also completely safe for use with humans.

“If one also considers the production price of the assistant, which is well below that of any similar service robot, then countless new possibilities suddenly present themselves.

“With the aid of additive manufacturing, we can replicate structures from nature almost one-to-one. And in combination with this additive technology, the use of pneumatics for the drive system creates the basis for such a low production price,” explains Mr Grzesiak.

Festo is an international supplier of automation technology with problem-solving expertise in the field of pneumatic and electrical automation. Festo’s innovative strength is demonstrated by around 100 new products which it launches every year, as well as a research and development ratio of 9.5 percent and the 2900 patents it holds worldwide. Its new approach in product development uses bionics and biomechatronics within the framework of the Bionic Learning Network.

Germany: www.festo.com

New Zealand: www.festo.com/cms/en-nz_nz/index.htm

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