Flexures Make This Six-DOF Positioner Accurate To The Micron Level

It’s no secret that we think flexures are pretty cool, and we’ve featured a number of projects that leverage these compliant mechanisms to great effect. But when we saw flexures used in a six-DOF positioner with micron accuracy, we just had to dig a little deeper.

The device is known as the Hexblade, and it comes to us from the lab of [Jonathan Hopkins] at UCLA. We have to admit that at times, the video below feels a little like the “Turbo Encabulator” schtick — “three identical decoupled actuation limbs arranged in an axisymmetric configuration” may be perfectly descriptive, but it does not flow trippingly from the tongue. Hats off to [Professor Hopkins] for nailing the narration, though, and really, once you get a handle on the jargon, it all makes perfect sense. The platform is supported by a total of six flexures, which look like bent pieces of sheet metal but are actually cut from a solid block of material using wire EDM. Three of the flexures are oriented in the plane of the platform, while the other three are perpendicular to it. The far end of each flexure is connected to a voice-coil actuator that is surrounded by another flexure, this one in a parallelogram arrangement. The six actuators can move the platform smoothly through three linear translations (X, Y, and Z) and three rotations (roll, pitch, and yaw).
The platform’s range of motion is limited, but the advantages of using flexures as bearings are clear — there’s no backlash or hysteresis, and the voice coils can control the position of the stage to micron accuracy. Something like the Hexblade would be an ideal positioner for microscopy, and we can imagine an even smaller version, perhaps even a MEMS-fabricated one for nanomanufacturing applications. The original concept of the Hexblade serving as the print head for a fabrication robot for space applications is pretty cool, too, and we’d venture to say that a homebrew version of this probably isn’t out of reach either.

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A MetaSense joystick

3D-Printing Complex Sensors And Controls With Metamaterials

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.

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Xbox Flexure Joystick Puts You In The Pilot’s Seat

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 flexture gimbal works without traditional springs.

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.

This isn’t the first time [Akaki] has used 3D printed parts to adapt a console controller for flight simulator use. A simplified version of this concept used ball-and-socket joints to move the Xbox’s analog sticks, and he even turned a PlayStation DualShock into an impressive flight yoke you could clamp to your desk.

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3D Printed Joystick Using Spherical Flexure Joint

One of the many advancements brought about by 3D printing is the rapid development of compliant mechanisms and flexure joints. One such example is [jicerr]’s joystick, which uses a pair of spherical flexure joints recently developed by researchers from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, See the videos after the break.

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.

Compliant mechanisms have a number of interesting applications, including harmonic drives, dial indicators and thrust vectoring mounts.

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Harmonic Drive Uses Compliant Mechanism To Slim Down

[Levi Janssen] has a secret: he doesn’t like harmonic drives. But rather than abandon the torque-amplifying transmission completely, he decided to see about improving them using 3D-printed compliant mechanisms.

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.

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Print-in-Place Connectors Aim To Make Wiring Easier

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.

Wago 221 compact lever connector via the Wago YouTube channel

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.

We love the combination of print-in-place, compliant mechanisms, and composite construction on display here. It reminds us a bit of these printable SMD tape tamers, or this print-in-place engine benchmark.

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Retrotechtacular: Design For Assembly, 1980s-Style

To get its engineers thinking about design for assembly back in the 1980s, Westinghouse made a video about a product optimized for assembly: the IBM Proprinter. The technology may be dated, but the film presents a great look at how companies designed not only for manufacturing, but also for ease of assembly.

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.

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