I’m tempted to cut my arms off. Don’t worry, not just yet, and not because I don’t want arms. No, quite the contrary. I want better arms. Working arms. These ones I’ve got can barely even be considered arms; soft, bony, arm-shaped paperweights would be the more accurate description of the appendages so uselessly attached to my torso. See, I’ve a neuromuscular disease, so my arms, as well as the rest of my extremities, just hardly operate. I’m childishly weak. No, that’s saying too much. Toddlers are beyond my weight class. Bound to a wheelchair, I’m not even typing this with a physical keyboard. So why am I so casually writing about probably dismembering myself in some foreseeable future(s)? Because thanks to 3D printing and the work being done by two brilliant researchers at the University of West England, Bristol, Peter Walters and David McGoran, there’s a new reason for me and people like me to hold to a strand of hope that maybe we won’t always be like this.
You may find it rather morbid or just plain unthinkable that I’d trade my own feeling, living tissue for some clunky, cold, inanimate steel, but that’s the thing about this new tech: it brings some life to robotics. Walters and McGowan have combined a Shape Memory Alloy Biometal material with a flexible tentacle that was printed from an Objet 3D printer, and it does well to mimic biologic muscular movement. The Biometal contracts when the appropriate electrical current is sent through it, and the printed material provides structure with flexibility. The tentacle was printed in Objet’s translucent rubber-like TangoPlus with all necessary cavities for the wiring and Biometals, so there are few pieces and it’s low profile. As low profile as a robotic octopus could dream of being. Obviously I don’t want a pair of tentacles, mostly out of fear that I’d inadvertently become a suction-cuppy supervillain, but the realm of application is clearly expansive.
Already people have printed skin-like textures and bone-like materials with attached “tendons,” and when considering recent advances in biofeedback technology (tactile stimulation through synthetic means), it’s easy to see that in the near future both robots and prosthetics will be eerily/comfortably convincing, depending upon your perspective. With the spread of 3D printing has come a flood of innovation, as there’s reduced limitation and cost and time requirements with testing and implementing ideas. The progress of these projects will lead to collaborative efforts amongst their researchers, and I personally look forward to the marvels they’ll surely manifest. Currently, prosthetics do freak people out because they are so foreign looking, and because they are often hard and jagged, not at all inviting. Innovation such as this can help maimed and disabled people find acceptance in society. Just reading about someone planning to replace their birthlimbs with some printed contraptions may have made you uncomfortable, but I hope you can understand why breakthroughs like this make me more comfortable with that possibility than the alternative of never hugging my loved ones.
For more on the 3D printed tentacle work, read Peter Walters’ and David McGoran’s academic paper.