3D PRINTED FLEXIBLE MATERIALS FOR ELECTROACTIVE POLYMER STRUCTURES, SOFT ACTUATORS, AND FLEXIBLE SENSORS
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Soft actuators and sensors are currently used in many industrial applications due to their capability to produce an accurate response. Researchers have studied dielectric electroactive polymers (DEAPs) because these types of structures can be utilized as actuators and as sensors being able to convert electrical energy into mechanical and vice versa. However, production of this kind of structures is complex and in general involve several steps that are time consuming. Customization of these types of structures will be ideal to enhance the performance of the devices based on the specific application. 3D printing technologies have emerged as innovative manufacturing processes that could improve fabrication speed, accuracy, and consistency with low cost. This additive manufacturing technique allows for the possibility of increased device complexity with high versatility.
This research studied the potential of 3D printing technologies to produce DEAPs, soft actuators, and flexible sensors. The study presents novel designs of these composite flexible structures, utilizing the most flexible conductive and nonconductive materials available for fused deposition modeling, achieving versatility and high performance in the produced devices. Produced DEAP actuators showed an actuation and electric resistivity higher than other electroactive structures like shape memory alloys and ferroelectric polymers. In addition, this research describes the electromechanical characterization of a flexible thermoplastic polyurethane, (TPU), produced by additive manufacturing, including measurement of the dielectric constant, percentage radial elongation, tensile proprieties, pre-strain effects on actuation, surface topography, and measured actuation under high voltage. DEAP actuators were produced with two different printing paths, concentric circles and lines, showed an area expansion of 4.73% and 5.71% respectively. These structures showed high resistance to electric fields having a voltage breakdown of 4.67 kV and 5.73 kV respectively. Those results are similar to the resistant of the most used dielectric material “VHB 4910”.
The produced soft pneumatic actuators were successfully 3D printed in one continuous process without support material. The structures were totally sealed without the use of any sealing material or post process. Computational simulations were made to predict the response of the designed structures under different conditions. These results were compared with experimental results finding that the theoretical model is able to predict the response of the printed actuators with an error of less than 7%. This error is satisfactorily small for modeling 3D printed structures and can be further minimized by characterization of the elastomeric material. Besides that, two different grippers were designed based on the opening and closing movements of single bellows actuators. The functionality of both designs was simulated and tested, finding that both designs are capable lifting a heavier rigid structure.
Finally, this study presents a computational simulation of a 3D printed flexible sensor, capable of producing an output signal based on the deformation caused by external forces. Two different sensors were designed and tested, working based on a capacitance and resistance change produced by structural deformation. Computational analysis indicate the capacitance sensor should undergo change of capacitance from 3 to 8.5 pF when is exposed to 30 kPa; and the resistance sensor should experience an increase from 101.8 to 103 kΩ when is exposed to 30 kPa.