While 3D printing functional robots is a time-honoured tradition, it always requires significant assembly and time because of the difficulty inherent in printing actuators – the parts that make the robots move.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has developed a new process, which could produce a functional robot in a single print and only requires a battery to get moving.

MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) is responsible for the breakthrough with a project titled “Printable Hydraulics: A Method for Fabricating Robots by 3D Co-Printing Solids and Liquids“.

Without reading the detailed university paper linked in the previous sentence, the process can be summed up pretty easily: using a 3D printer with eight different heads to lay down different materials, a UV light can then be applied to the resulting print, which will solidify the material depending on its structure.

This means that a single print could be made containing both solids and liquids, and anything in between. This opens up the possibility to create hydraulics, as well as useful objects such as flexible pumps.

To show off an application of the process, the team created a complete hexapod robot, that just needed a power source and a motor to gets its little legs moving. It works thanks to a crankshaft moving six hydraulic legs in unison. Again, the entire robot and all its mechanics came from a single print.

Although not implicitly stated by the team, we assume this same process could be used to create pneumatic systems, assuming the surrounding material is not porous.

The announcement of the project also alluded to the process being used on commercially-available 3D printers, but they (unfortunately) didn’t go into any more detail. Hopefully we’ll be able to more simply print our own little helpers soon.

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[Source – MIT News]