Leeds gets state of art 3D printers to create ‘soft’ mini-robots

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So-called 3d printing may have been around for a while but it’s come of age and the University of Leeds has some of the best technology, as Neil Hudson found out.

Imagine being able to make a telephone call just by raising your hand to your ear, or having a health check from a team of miniaturised robots, some of which will ‘swim’ inside you.

It sounds like science fiction but the reality is, the technology to enable things like that to happen is already available - the surprising bit is it’s right here in Leeds, which has scored a world-first with a dedicated new research centre, which will open later this year.

Leeds stands on the brink of a robot revolution with the launch later this year of a new world-leading centre which could help change the way we live our lives forever.

It will enable scientists here to create objects, including replicas of body parts, such as those created by Sheffield inventor Tom Fripp, owner of Rotherham-based Fripp Design, who used the technology to create prosthetics.

Late last year a project called March of the Robots was launched in Leeds. It’s aim was to get ordinary people interested in robots and will culminate in October with the official launch of a new Faculty for Innovative Robot Systems at the University of Leeds.

That centre brings together some of the most up-to-date computer hardware, including the latest 3D printers, allowing scientists to pioneer new technologies which could mean anything from printing replacement car parts to radical new ways of treating diseases.

Dr Peter Culmer is senior translational research fellow in surgical technologies at the School of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Leeds.

He explained how the 3D printers at Leeds are already working on new ways of detecting cancer.

“All of the technology we have at Leeds in the new centre exists elsewhere in the world but not in one place - in Leeds, we have it all in one place and it’s not just the 3D printers but laser cutters and a range of CAD/CAM (computer aided design/manufacturing) machinery.

“One of the projects we are already working on is to do with the detection of bowel cancer. At the moment, that relies on something called an colonoscopy, which is basically a flexible metal rod which is inserted into the colon and it has a camera and a light source and it’s guided by a clinician who looks for abnormalities. The problem with it is that it’s often an unpleasant experience, because patients because the bowel has to be inflated CO2 and that can be painful and they have to drink a lot of fluids beforehand. As a result of this, some people referred for screenings don’t go for them or are unable to complete the examination.

“Replacing CO2 with warm saline solution is much less unpleasant.

“What we are examining is a way of using a ‘soft’ robot about two centimetres in length, which could swim through this and look for abnormalities. It would be much less intrusive.”

The robot he is describing, no bigger than a walnut, would contain all kinds of moving parts, including gears, jets, even amphibious-like ‘fins’ to help it push through narrow gaps in the colon. The robot itself would be intuitive to a degree, it would have a light source - essentially it would be a miniature submarine.

But it’s not just small objects which the new 3D printers will be tackling - the ones installed in Leeds are capable of dealing with objects up to a metre in size. In addition, they are capable of printing in multiple materials and even creating flexible circuit boards.

“If you can imagine it and design it, then we probably have a go at making it.

“In the past we’ve tended to think of robots as quite rigid things but this new technology allows us to look at making ‘soft’ robots - it’s taking a lead from nature. If we can make robots that are soft, it means they interact with us on a different level.

“One area we are actively researching is soft robot technology in surgery, so soft robots going into the body and interacting with it and adapting to their environments.”

In addition to that arm of research, others will inevitably open up - one such could be that surgeons utilise the 3D printers to enable them to see a person’s body (or body part) before they operate. The new printers are so advanced they can practically recreate any object, even complex objects which have overhangs, bends and undulations.

Dr Culmer said: “Imagine if you were printing a mushroom. The machine would begin the printing but so far up you have the overhang of the mushroom. The machine would take this into consideration and would print a kind of support structure below where the overhang is going to be so that when it gets there, it can print it and then join it back to the main structure. The support structure would then be either disolvable in water or would be made of a different, more brittle kind of plastic so it could just be snapped off.”

The printers can also be used to create millimetre-sized objects with moving parts sub-millimetre patterns (think tyre tracks), so, in effect, robots small enough to fit inside us.

Another area which looks likely to change people’s lives is the ability to print circuit boards onto flexible materials. The printers use something akin to an inkjet printer, the difference being the circuits are bendable. This will see a move away from traditional rigid circuit boards and will mean they can be much thinner and more cost effective and pretty much any shape.

Theoretically, they could be thin enough to fit on your finger nail, so in the future we may only need to put our hands to our heads to make a phone call.

The University was successful in bidding for funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Staff at the university are keen to work with local businesses and organisations. For more information: www.engineering.leeds.ac.uk/robotics/index.shtml

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