Academic Contact: Jordan Boyle
Academic Staff: Professor Ornella Iuorio, Professor Pietro Valdastri, Dr Nutapong Somjit, Professor Andrew Bayly, Professor Megan Povey, Professor Robert Richardson, Professor Shane Xie
The need to manufacture physical hardware can be a major limiting factor when designing robots. As such, advances in manufacturing capabilities are a key enabler for robotics research. Here at Leeds, a number of researchers are working on new techniques for building robots and their sub-components.
Additive Manufacturing (AM) offers digitally driven, tooling free manufacturing, increasing the speed and flexibility of production while reducing the cost for low volumes, which is crucial for the future of manufacturing robots. AM has matured into a tool which is now commonly used in the design and manufacture of robots, but currently it is used primarily to fabricate passive structural components that form part of an overall assembly. The need for subsequent manual assembly limits the design freedom and speed of fabrication afforded by AM. Several researchers envision a future AM system capable fabricating an entire complex robot through a single process, such that it “walks” – fully formed and functional – out of the build chamber. While it may one day be possible to additively manufacture functional building blocks like motors, batteries and electronic circuits, it is highly unlikely that this will be feasible any time soon.
In the short to medium term, a more promising approach is to embed functional inserts (like motors etc.) into a part or assembly during the printing process. One project currently underway at Leeds seeks to develop a novel 12-axis AM system, built around high-precision industrial robot arms and using Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF), to enable the embedding of pre-manufactured mechatronic components. The additional degrees of freedom in the system allow the orientation (as well as position) of the end effector to be controlled, which in turn makes it possible to print around pre-existing parts and to print in non-flat layers. FFF parts usually have anisotropic properties, due to incomplete bonding between the layers, and conformal layers are shown to improve the strength of curved parts by over 50%. Furthermore, the ability to dynamically modify build orientation enables the printing of unsupported, 90° overhangs.
The research team currently focuses on cutting-edge research topics in integrated microsensors, multi-sensor systems, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) and 3D heterogeneous integrations for smart and self-aware robotic systems. For examples, research activities in MEMS ranges from radio frequency (RF) to millimetre waves, and THz for various applications in e.g. high-speed reconfigurable robotic communication and, medical and biomedical systems. The research also includes novel material characterisation for millimetre and submillimetre-wave applications, as well as development of novel planar and 3D micro/nano-fabrication techniques facilitated by state-of-the-art cleanroom and modern high-frequency measurement laboratory at Leeds. Recently, the research group also developed nano and microfluidic-integrated millimetre-wave lab-on-substrate sensors for liquid mixture characterisation, which can intensively analyse various kinds of liquid solutions, i.e. ethanol content in ethanol/water liquid mixture. The fabrication facility is mainly supported by the EPSRC National Facility for Innovative Robotic Systems.
Developing through-process modelling approaches to simulate and optimize the 3D printing processes in order to achieve performance-driven fibre distributions. Integrating robots with 3D printers to enable additive manufacturing of large scale fibre reinforced polymer composite structures with complex geometry.
Developing digital lightweight lattice structures assembled from carbon fibre reinforced polymer composites using robots.