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You can program 3D-printed materials with exact shock absorbent qualities

Programmable Viscoelastic Materials
These days, 3D printing lets us print objects in a growing number of different materials. One problem with these materials, however, is they contain the same properties throughout. An object created from silicone, for example, will possess the same properties throughout its body — with the only control the designer has being to vary the thickness of different elements.

That could be about to change, however, due to new research coming out of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). What CSAIL researchers have demonstrated is a Programmable Viscoelastic Material (PVM) technique that lets users individually program every part of a 3D-printed object to the exact levels of stiffness or elasticity they want.

“What’s exciting about it is that it allows us to control the mechanical properties in any particular volume of the part that we print,” Jeffrey Lipton, co-lead author of the new paper, told Digital Trends. “You can ensure that some parts of an object are stiff, other parts are very soft, and all in what looks like the same piece of solid material. That’s really different to any other fabrication approach out there.”

The cutting-edge research could have applications across a broad range of fields, but one that has the researchers most excited is soft robotics.

“Right now, a lot of soft robots are made out of silicone and other types of rubber,” Lipton said. “You don’t always want to build a robot out of a material that’s bouncy, however. For instance, if you want it to jump from one place to another and really nail the landing, you need to absorb the shock. Our bodies can do that naturally, but soft robots sometimes have a problem absorbing the energy needed for landing correctly.”

Using the new technology, it is possible to customize the skin and bodies of these robots so they can better dissipate the energy from a landing, instead of bouncing all over the place. As an illustration of this, the researchers 3D-printed a cube robot which moves by bouncing. They then kitted it out with shock-absorbing ‘skins’ able to reduce the amount of energy it transfers to the ground by 250 percent.

“We think this will give roboticists far more control over the design of their robots,” co-lead author Robert MacCurdy told us.

Personally, we are most excited about using it for a smart 3D-printed phone case that keeps our new iPhone 7 in one piece.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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