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Soft or hard, at will.

Let’s clear the table immediately. This blog is about technology, so no second meaning please.
Just three days ago I posted a news on work being done to embed electronics in soft materials so that one can provide a skin like cover to a robot, able to perceive touch and get a touch feeling when the robot would pick up an object like a paper glass.
And now I am stumbling on another news, this one from MIT, about work being done in material science to change the consistence of a material, soft or hard at will.
The article is about "squishy robots" and that should give you a first idea. The researchers are looking at materials that can change their physical characteristics on demand.
Why would they want to do that? Imagine a surgical robots having to penetrate your body. Sometimes there is no straight line that can be used to reach the target tissue and the robot would require to bend and wiggle to avoid damaging important organs. This is not possibile if the robotic arm is stiff. On the other hand operating a soft arm is not possible with the precision that is usually required. What you need would be an arm that can be soft enough to change shape and wiggle around and stiff as needed when the actual surgery has to take place on the target tissue.<
Researchers at MIT have come up with some interesting solutions. One is to use a (polyurethane) foam that can be squeezed at will and then can return to the original shape and cover it with wax. When the wax is cold it gives structural rigidity whilst when it is warm it easily change shape at will. By placing copper wires in the wax they can heat the wax and make it soft. <
Another trick is to use a special kind of materials, magnetorheological and electrorheologica, a fluid containing tiny particles that under an magnetic or electric field can change its characteristics turning from fluid (soft) to solid (hard).
A third approach is to use a scaffolding printed through a 3D printer shaped in such a way that it can easily collapse on itself (thus becoming soft) once its wax covering sheet is warmed. The principle is similar to the polyurethane foam although they have proved that in several situation a scaffolding can be better controlled. By using 3D printing they can basically create the right structure for the specific application targeted.
As I pointed out in previous post the advances in material science will be a strong enabler for the development of new materials bringing about, in the next decade, progress that will exceed the ones witnessed in the last century with the invention of plastic. Difficult today to imagine a single day of our life spent without using any plastic object. I bet the same will happen in the next decade with reference to new materials that today do not exist.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.