The robots of today are complex, and that doesn’t just mean they have sophisticated software and impressive mechanical capabilities. Manufacturing a robot is an expensive, time-consuming process that requires many parts and a lot of assembly. Building a robot is more akin to assembling a car than it is to fabricating a cell phone or laptop, and that makes them expensive. The solution to that may be in cheap processes like lamination, which the MIT Media Lab is experimenting with to create robots that can be mass produced.
These Circuit Robots are small and lightweight, and won’t be replacing the kinds of massive industrial robots designed for heavy lifting. But, they could be useful as mobile sensor platforms or in other light-duty applications. While the robots themselves are rudimentary, the real breakthrough is in how they’re made. Each of the Circuit Robot designs can be produced quickly and affordably in mass quantities at any flexible electronics factory.
Each robot starts as flexible PCB (printed circuit board) with all of the microcontrollers, sensors, and supporting electronic components already populated using efficient conventional techniques. In large quantities, these would cost just a dollar or two to manufacture. Those are then laminated with air chambers or shape-memory alloy (SMA) sandwiched inside. The air chambers provide pneumatic actuation, while the SMA wires are actuated electrically. The pneumatically-actuated version weighs just 15 grams and can produce 2.24N of force, and only costs a couple of dollars to build in a modern facility.