June 11, 2014      

If you like your robots small and cute, then you won’t want to miss the 3D-printed, self-folding robotic reading lamp.

Researchers from the Harvard Microrobotics Lab are behind the project, they’re the same folks now developing the RoboBee.

The lamp was just demonstrated at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Hong Kong. Here’s how it works, via IEEE Spectrum:

“The sensors are the big news here: they come straight out of the printer, just like the structure of the lamp itself as well as all of the self-folding elements and most of the wiring.

The mechanical switch is a hinged four-bar linkage that can be repeatedly twisted (hundreds of times) to open or close printed electrical contacts. The touch sensor (which can capacitively sense applied force) can be used to switch the lamp on and off, or to adjust the brightness of the LED.

The thing that comes out of the printer (it’s a rather special sort of printer) is a flat multi-layer sandwich of shape-memory polymers (they take care of the actual folding, triggered by heat), thin layers of copper, layers of paper and foam for structure, and double-sided tape to keep it all stuck together.

Obviously, not every single part of this lamp was printed. Discrete components like the LED were manually soldered to the composite before folding, and the lamp was wired into an Arduino to get the capacitive touch sensor to properly control the LED.”

The paper and demonstration were by ByungHyun Shin, Samuel M. Felton, Michael T. Tolley and Robert J. Wood from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.

Here’s part of what they wrote:

“The self-assembling lamp demonstrates the potential for the rapid and inexpensive production of self-folding machines that can interact with the environment. It showed that even complex mechanisms, such as the mechanical switch, can be integrated into the self-folding process of a larger machine, and utilized in practical electronic circuits. Although printable sensors may lack the robust structural strength and reliability of other sensors, they have many potential applications such as low-cost rapid prototyping and manufacturing of customized designs in residential homes. The development of sensors that utilize self-folding manufacturing techniques and their integration into more complex structures is an important stepping stone in the path towards autonomously assembling machines and robots.”