Robot Joints Go Modular With This Actuator Project

[John Lauer] has been hard at work re-thinking robot arms. His project to create modular, open source actuators that can be connected to one another to form an arm is inspiring, and boasts an impressively low parts cost as well. The actuators are each self-contained, with an ESP32 and a design that takes advantage of the form factors of inexpensive modules and parts from vendors like Aliexpress.

Flex spline in action, for reducing backlash

Each module has 3D printed gears (with an anti-backlash flex spline), an RGB LED for feedback, integrated homing, active cooling, a slip ring made from copper tape, and a touch sensor dial on the back for jogging and training input. The result is a low backlash, low cost actuator that keeps external wiring to an absolute minimum.

Originally inspired by a design named WE-R2.4, [John] has added his own twist in numerous ways, which are best summarized in the video embedded below. That video is number three in a series, and covers the most interesting developments and design changes while giving an excellent overview of the parts and operation (the video for part one is a basic overview and part two shows the prototyping process, during which [John] 3D printed the structural parts and gears and mills out a custom PCB.)

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3D-Printed Strain Wave Gear Needs Your Help

In most mechanical systems, metal gears that bend are a bad thing. But not so for strain wave gearing, which is designed to take advantage of a metal gear flexing to achieve an action much like planetary gears. The fun isn’t limited to metal anymore, though, if you 3D print a strain wave gear like this.

Strain-wave gearing is nothing new – it was invented in 1957 and has traveled to the moon on the lunar rover. And you may recall [Kristine Panos]’ recent article on a LEGO strain wave gear, which makes it easy to visualize how they work. She also has a great description of how the flex spline, wave generator, and circular spline interact, so we’ll spare those details here. [Simon Merret]’s interpretation of the strain wave gear is very simple and similar to other 3D-printed versions, except that he uses an inside-out timing belt as the flex spline. The wave generator is just an arm with a roller bearing at each end, and despite needing a few tweaks the gear does an admirable job.

Simon is reaching out for help in getting this gear ready for use where the industrial versions see frequent application – the first and second degrees of freedom of robotic arms. If you’ve got any ideas, head over to his project page on and pitch in.

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