Soft robotics – How 3D printing enables technological advancements to explore oceans and save lives
Additive manufacturing enabled soft robotics – Robots exploring the depths of our oceans or performing life-saving surgery: Near-time reality or vision of a far-off future?
By applying additive manufacturing to the advancement of soft robotics, we may be able to automate processes that today are unthinkable to be handled by machines. With the right strategy in place, ABB could lead this change and develop technology that has the potential to disrupt how we apply robotics and automation in our lives. However, finding the balance between highly specialized technology and a commercially viable product that can achieve scale is a challenging endeavor.
Additive Manufacturing, or 3D printing, is the process of joining materials to create objects, usually layer by layer, from 3D model data, as opposed to traditional subtractive manufacturing methods.  It is especially successful in areas that require high degrees of customization or design precision across industries, i.e. innovative, highly complex products.  
One of the leading players focusing on additive manufacturing today is ABB Group. Founded in 1883 and headquartered in Zurich, it is one of the largest electrical engineering manufacturers globally. Almost half of ABB’s operating profits come from its Robotics and Industrial Automation divisions. 
In the past decades, Industrial Robots have changed the manufacturing process of a vast range of industries. However, due to certain limitations, existing robotics technology has not yet reached a number of high-potential industries.  While a human arm can perform the most delicate, coordinated movements – like gently picking up a toddler or performing brain surgery – robotic arms are often rigid and limited in the fluidity of movements, which can be hindering in more advanced, complex applications.  For instance, traditional underwater robots can explore marine life beyond human reach, but cannot interact with or collect sensitive, soft-bodied sea organisms without damaging them, thus limiting the opportunities of scientific research in this field. 
A potential solution to this issue is soft robotics, enabled by multi-material additive manufacturing. 3D Printing can be leveraged to create complex, soft structures with highly sensitive sensors, providing robotics with advanced dexterity and flexibility.  Such technology could be used for e.g., bio-medical procedures, applications in warehouse and distribution, or the food and beverage industry. As a leader in robotics, ABB is well positioned for a leading role in this technology. To successfully apply soft robotics to a broader range of industries, the organization will need to resolve the issue of balancing highly specialized technology with sufficient scale to make it commercially viable.
ABB already focuses intensively on additive manufacturing. Their dedicated researchers explore benefits in e.g., design simplification or light weight design. In 2016, ABB revealed the first 3D printed office building, combining futuristic design with improved energy efficiency (Figure 1). The 3D printer used measured 120x20x40 feet and constructed the building in only two weeks.  Internally, rapid prototyping through additive manufacturing is already replacing traditional production methods, shortening the product development cycle from several weeks to only a few days. 
Figure 1 – ABB’s 3D printed ‘Office of the Future’ in Dubai, Source: ABB company website
Within the soft robotics space, ABB is beginning to explore potential applications by collaborating with startups and universities. The most relevant example is a partnership between ABB Technology Ventures and the startup “Soft Robotics”, a spin-off from the Whitesides Group at Harvard University which develops new designs for robots inspired by octopuses (Figure 2).  
Figure 2 – The octobot, an entirely soft robot, Source: Wyss Institute Harvard
Forward-looking, to successfully address the challenge of developing innovative, at-scale soft robotics for a broad range of industries, I would recommend ABB to dedicate more in-house research resources to this field. By investing in its own R&D, ABB will become a more valuable partner to research institutes and startups, thus complementing its current partnership approach to 3D printing.
Furthermore, ABB should focus on building relationships to target groups with “extreme applications” such as marine research to sharpen its understanding of success factors, challenges, and opportunities in new fields. As with many innovations at an early stage, it may still be unclear who the dominating players and technologies will be. Therefore, ABB should continuously explore how it can leverage start-up relationships and venture investments to explore a wide range of innovations.
Given soft robotics is a relatively new technology, there are many open questions that are critical for ABB to address. For instance, the organization will need to develop a strategy on how to best understand the needs of potential new target markets that can be approached with soft robotics, and how to best pursue this opportunity commercially: Is the best strategy to initially focus efforts on one highly specialized niche application, similar to IBM’s approach with Watson?  Or should ABB aim to develop a solution that addresses a broader range of applications across industries, foremost focusing on scale and cost efficiency? What do we think is realistic in the near future, and what will remain a vision for another decade? (797 words)
 – Digital Capability Center, McKinsey & Company
 – Lisa Harouni (2012), “A primer on 3D printing” (TED Talk)
 – Dennis Spaeth, “3D Printing is Changing the Face of Multiple Industries”
 – ABB Company Website
 Steve Pillsbury et al (2018), pwc report, “Robot-ready: Adopting a new generation of industrial robots”
 – Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard in Science News, “Submarines now have soft, robotic arms” (Link)
 Brennan T. Phillips et al (2018) “A Dexterous, Glove-Based Teleoperable Low-Power Soft Robotic Arm for Delicate Deep-Sea Biological Exploration” (Link)
 Robison, B. H. (2004), Deep pelagic biology, “Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology” 300 (1), 253–272
 Rus, D. & Tolley (2015), M. T. Design, “Fabrication and Control of Soft Robots”, in Nature 521(7553), 467–475
 Bruyas, A. et al (2015) “Toward unibody robotic structures with integrated functions using multimaterial additive manufacturing: case study of an MRI-compatible interventional device”, in IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems
 Wang, Y., and Lee, K. (2017) “3D-printed semi-soft mechanisms inspired by origami twisted tower”, in NASA/ESA Conference on Adaptive Hardware and Systems
 Company video – Youtube: ABB Robotics, Functional Prototypes for the YuMi robot – Ultimaker: 3D Printing Story (Link)
 Rothemund P. (2018) “A Soft, Bistable Valve for Autonomous Control of Soft Actuators”, Whitesides.G.M. and Science Robotics
 Leah Burrows, SEAS Communications, (2016) “The first autonomous, entirely soft robot”
 D. A. Ferrucci (2012), “Introduction to “This is Watson”, in IBM Journal of Research and Development, vol. 56, no. 3.4
Student comments on Soft robotics – How 3D printing enables technological advancements to explore oceans and save lives
I found this article very interesting and informative. I am definitely bought-in to the idea of additive manufacturing, but I have one lingering question about it’s application in this case: is there anything specific about additive manufacturing that makes it unique in this use case? Said another way, can we use traditional manufacturing techniques to produce soft robotics as well, or is additive manufacturing the only way to achieve these breakthroughs?
Beyond that, I think this was a very interesting glimpse into the potential applications of additive manufacturing. Thanks for the insight!
I really enjoyed reading this post. I’m impressed that you were able to identify such a specific application for additive manufacturing / soft robotics. I wonder if there is much demand for this sort of technology as it relates to the collection of soft-bodied sea organisms? As such, I think your question is a good one – should ABB aim to develop a solution that addresses a broader range of applications across industries, foremost focusing on scale and cost efficiency? To me, it seems that a lot of investment would be required to create such a technology, so to the extent it could be as broadly marketed as possible, I think that would better insure demand and commercial success.
This article is an interesting introduction to the world of soft robotics. On hearing about robots inspired by octopuses and more “gentle” or “soft” robots, I immediately thought about when soft robotics would be applied to humanoid or human-like robots. For example, is a human-hand one of the most efficient ways to gently pick things up, and if so, would it be useful to start 3D printing “soft” robot human hands? In addition, could this technology be combined with “hard” robots and applied to creating more realistic and responsive prosthetics for amputees?
In response to your question about whether to focus on a single application or develop widely, I think that it depends on the economies of scale for additive manufacturing. I would compare a 3D-printing production process to a job shop, where there is a fixed set-up time and then a variable production time for each unit. Whether to focus or develop widely will depend on whether the setup time or variable production time is the bottleneck for each process.
Thanks for your post, this was very interesting and I learned a lot reading this. I think that soft robotics are an interesting way to overcome some of the limitations of automated processes today. In addition to the practical applications, the reduction in the product development cycle is another major positive for this type of technology. In response to your question, I actually have a different point of view than some of the comments above and I think they should focus on a niche application. I think ABB should have a very strong commercial application for its product that it can bring to market. Once it gains credibility, the Company will be able to leverage its existing knowledge to hopefully produce solutions to a broader array of problems. However, I do believe that it is better to take the IBM Watson approach and make sure that they can solve one problem really well before trying to tackle a variety of different things.
Interesting topic! Had not heard of soft robotics before now, but I can definitely see the potential.
To give a view on your question about whether to design for a niche application or a broader range, I think focusing on a specific field with many possible applications could give you the best of both worlds. For example, if ABB could create tiny “surgery robots” that could be used for many different types of surgeries, they could keep development costs low while maintaining a large potential market.
In general, the soft aspect of these robots makes them really promising for interaction with human beings (also soft). Of the interactions with the human body that require the greatest precision and pose the greatest risk of damage, surgery stood out to me, but there are clearly a ton of possibilities!
3D printing stands to disrupt and revolutionize many industries. As you pointed out, Robotics is no different. Soft Robotics offers a new realm of possibilities while answering many traditional robotic problems such as delicate and finesse movements. I think that applications of soft-robotics will have a broad range of applications but will require significant specialization to be fully articulated in each specific market/application. ABB should try to predict what will be the first wave of uses for soft-robotics and then double-down on fully developing that technology. ABB should prioritize developing soft-robotics that mimic human hand movements. From here ABB would be a player in many markets from the medical industry: prosthetics and providing sanitary ‘human touch’ to babies in the NICU to consumer markets: mass creating fine art that has human-like qualities to the brush strokes and painting techniques.
– Explored and clearly articulated unique/non-conventional application of additive manufacturing.
– If the article addresses clearly what makes it difficult to develop soft robotics (i.e. which is the bottleneck for soft robotics between creation of soft-bodied object and control on highly sensitive sensors) and why, the readers can understand better the current situation and how far ABB is to achieve its goal, making this article more insightful.
Response to the questions:
– I believe that soft robot technology will face difficulty to scale. Thinking about the industry where the soft robotics can have a competitive advantage operationally, I could only come up with medical/healthcare industry. But we learned that patients would not build trust with robots easily from IBM case and I believe the psychological barrier would be higher in the context where robots touch and take care of patients physically. Given that, I would recommend that they focus its effort of soft robotics on highly specialized niche application at this moment.
– It might be good idea to just focus on soft-bodied additive manufacturing and with that technology ABB replaces customized soft-bodied objects. I believe it is easier to scale.