If you’ve got a mechatronic project in mind, a 3D printer can be a big help. Gears, levers, adapters, enclosures — if you can dream it up, a 3D printer can probably churn out a useful part for you. But what about more complicated parts, like sensors and user-input devices? Surely you’ll always be stuck buying stuff like that from a commercial supplier. Right?
Maybe not, if a new 3D-printed metamaterial method out of MIT gets any traction. The project is called “MetaSense” and seeks to make 3D-printed compliant structures that have built-in elements to sense their deformation. According to [Cedric Honnet], MetaSense structures are based on a grid of shear cells, printed from flexible filament. Some of the shear cells are simply structural, but some have opposing walls printed from a conductive filament material. These form a capacitor whose value changes as the distance between the plates and their orientation to each other change when the structure is deformed.
The video below shows some simple examples of monolithic MetaSense structures, like switches, accelerometers, and even a complete joystick, all printed with a multimaterial printer. Designing these structures is made easier by software that the MetaSense team developed which models the deformation of a structure and automatically selects the best location for conductive cells to be added. The full documentation for the project has some interesting future directions, including monolithic printed actuators.
With the recent release of Microsoft Flight Simulator on the Xbox Series X|S there’s never been a better time to get a flight stick for the console, and as you might imagine, there are a number of third party manufacturers who would love to sell you one. But where’s the fun in that?
If you’ve got a fairly well tuned 3D printer, you can print out and assemble this joystick by [Akaki Kuumeri] that snaps right onto the Xbox’s controller. Brilliantly designed to leverage the ability of 3D printers to produce compliant mechanisms, or flextures, you don’t even need any springs or fasteners to complete assembly.
The free version of Thingiverse only lets you move the controller’s right analog stick, but if you’re willing to drop $30 USD on the complete version, the joystick includes additional levers that connect to the controller’s face and shoulder buttons for more immersive control. There’s even a throttle that snaps onto the left side of the controller, though it’s optional if you’d rather save the print time.
If you want to learn more about the idea behind the joystick, [Akaki] is all too happy to walk you through the finer parts of the design in the video below. But the short version is the use of a flextures in the base of the joystick opened up the space he needed to run the mechanical linkages for all the other buttons.
Both flexure joint designs make use of tetrahedron-shaped elements, allowing an object to pivot around a fixed point in space like a ball-and-socket joint. One of the joints, named Tetra 2, is perfect for printing on a standard FDM printer, and the 3D files were uploaded to Thingiverse by [Jelle_Rommers], one of the researchers. [jicerr] took the design and created a base to mount an HMC5883 3-axis magnetometer a short distance from the focal point, which senses the rotation of a small magnet at the focal point. An Arduino takes the output from the magnetometer, does the necessary calculation, and interfaces to a PC as a joystick. Demonstrates this by using it to rotate and pan the design in Solidworks. One thing to keep in mind with this design is that it needs a fixed base to prevent it from moving around. It should also be possible to integrate the design directly into the housing of a controller.
Another amusing application is to turn it into a pen holder with a chicken head on the front, as demonstrated by [50Pro]. If you have any ideas for other applications, drop them in the comments.
For the uninitiated, harmonic drives, also known as strain-wave gears, are a compact, high-torque gearbox that has become popular with “robotic dog” makers and other roboticists. The idea is to have a rigid, internally-toothed outer ring nested around an externally-toothed, flexible cup. A wave generator rotates within the inside cup, stretching it so that it meshes with the outer ring. The two gears differ by only a couple of teeth, meaning that very high gear ratios can be achieved, which makes them great for the joints of robot legs.
[Levi]’s problem with the harmonic drive is that due to the depth of the flexible spline cup, compactness is not among its virtues. His idea is to couple the flex spline to the output of the drive through a flat spring, one that allows flexion as the wave generator rotates but transmits torque efficiently. The entire prototype is 3D-printed, except for the wave generator bearings and stepper motor, and put to the test.
As the video below shows after the excellent introduction to harmonic drives, the concept works, but it’s not without its limitations. Even lightly loaded, the drive made some unpleasant crunching sounds as the PLA springs gave out. We could easily see that being replaced with, say, a steel spring, either machined or cut on a water-jet machine. That might solve the most obvious problem and make [Levi]’s dream of a compact harmonic drive a reality. Of course, we have seen pretty compact strain-wave gears before.
One thing some of us here in the United States have always been jealous of is the WAGO connectors that seem so common in electrical wiring everywhere else in the world. We often wonder why the electrical trades here haven’t adopted them more widely — after all, they’re faster to use than traditional wire nuts, and time is money on the job site.
This print-in-place electrical connector is inspired by the WAGO connectors, specifically their Lever Nut series. We’ll be clear right up front that [Tomáš “Harvie” Mudruňka’s] connector is more of an homage to the commercially available units, and should not be used for critical applications. Plus, as a 3D-printed part, it would be hard to compete with something optimized to be manufactured in the millions. But the idea is pretty slick. The print-in-place part has a vaguely heart-shaped cage with a lever arm trapped inside it.
After printing and freeing the lever arm, a small piece of 1.3-mm (16 AWG) solid copper wire is inserted into a groove. The wire acts as a busbar against which the lever arm squeezes conductors. The lever cams into a groove on the opposite wall of the cage, making a strong physical and electrical connection. The video below shows the connectors being built and tested.
It’s not clear whether Westinghouse and IBM collaborated on the project, but given the inside knowledge of the dot-matrix printer’s assembly, it seems like they did. The first few minutes are occupied by an unidentified Westinghouse executive talking about design for assembly in general terms, and how it impacts the bottom line. Skip ahead to 3:41 if talking suits aren’t your thing.
Once the engineer gets going on the printer, though, things get really interesting. The printer’s guts are laid out before him, ready to be assembled. What’s notably absent from the table are tools — the Proprinter was so well designed that the only tool needed is a pair of human hands. And they don’t have to be particularly dexterous hands, either — the design favors motions that are straight down, letting gravity assist the assembly process and preventing assemblers from the need to contort their bodies. Almost everything is held in place by compliant mechanisms built into the plastic parts. There are a few gems in the film, like the plastic lead screw that drives the printhead, obviating the need to string a fussy timing belt, or the unique roller that twists to lock onto a long shaft, rather than having to be pushed to its center.
We found this film which we’ve placed below the break to be very instructive, and the fact that a device as complex as a printer can be assembled in just a few minutes without picking up a single tool is pretty illustrative of the power of designing for assembly. Slick designs that can’t be manufactured at scale are all too common in this age of powerful design tools and desktop manufacturing, so these lessons from the past might be worth relearning.
If you’ve ever had the good fortune — or, after a shop mishap, the misfortune — to see the insides of a dial indicator, you’ll know the workings of these shop essentials resemble nothing so much as those of a fine Swiss watch. The pinions, gears, and springs within transmit the slightest movement of the instrument’s plunger to a series of dials, making even the tiniest of differences easy to spot.
Not every useful dial indicator needs to have those mechanical guts, nor even a dial for that matter. This compliant mechanism 3D-printed dial-free indicator is perfect for a lot of simple tasks, including the bed leveling chores that [SunShine] designed it for. Rather than print a bunch of gears and assemble them, [SunShine] chose to print the plunger, a fine set of flexible linkage arms, and a long lever arm to act as a needle. The needle is attached to a flexible fulcrum, which is part of the barrel that houses the plunger. Slight movements of the plunger within the barrel push or pull on the needle, amplifying them into an easily read deflection. When attached to the head of a 3D-printer and scanned over the bed, it’s easy to see even the slightest variation in height and make the corresponding adjustments. Check it out in the video below.
We’re big fans of compliant mechanisms, seeing them in everything from robot arms and legs to thrust vectoring for an RC plane. This might look like something from a cereal box, and it certainly doesn’t have the lasting power of a Starrett or Mitutoyo, but then again it costs essentially nothing, and we like that too.