Creating Soft Robots With Knitting Machines

Update:09 May 2019

Recently, Software developed by researchers from CMU's […]

Recently, Software developed by researchers from CMU's Morphing Matter Lab and Dev Lab in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute makes it possible for the objects to emerge from the knitting machines in their desired shapes and with tendons already embedded. They can then be stuffed and the tendons attached to motors, as necessary. It's an approach they say might someday be used to cost-effectively make soft robots and wearable technologies.


Cuddliness aside, the real goal here is to design robotic form factors that are lower cost, less dangerous and in some cases even wearable. The team is designing an automated process that adds tendons, which can connect to harder motors, in order to create movement. Examples include, no joke, “stuffed figures that give hugs when poked in the stomach and even a sweater with a sleeve that moves on its own.”


In a sense, it’s a kind of old-school take on 3D printing and other additive manufacturing. Potential materials for tendons include polyester-wrapped quilting thread, pure silk yarn and nylon monofilament. Conductive yarn, meanwhile, could give the robot a much better sense of its own movements.


Commercial knitting machines are well developed and widely used, but generally require painstaking programming for each garment. This new research builds on previous CMU work to automate the process, making it easier to use these mass production machines to produce customized and one-off designs.


It's a pretty convenient pipeline to use for producing actuated knitted objects. Embedding tendons in the materials as they are created saves time and effort, and adds precision to the actuation.


Down the road, the research could lead to more serious soft robotics created with commercial knitting machines designed to produce garments. Actuated soft components would be cheap to produce on commercial knitting machines.

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