Calling all innovators

June 1, 2008
Here's a challenge, and a shot at a prize, for all you engineers with inventive minds. Elisabeth Eitel writes about a motion device unlike any other ... inspired by a snake.

Here's a challenge, and a shot at a prize, for all you engineers with inventive minds. Elisabeth Eitel writes about a motion device unlike anything you've ever seen. It's a three-dimensional polymer actuator that, with your help, could write a new chapter in the book on motion control.

Some of you may be familiar with earlier variations of this technology. Years ago, I remember writing about a solenoid-like device that derived its motive force from a thermally actuated polymer core. As I recall, applying current to a heating element caused the polymer to expand along its axis by a few percent of its length. Components employing this effect found their way into automotive shifting mechanisms as well as some medical applications.

What we're talking about today, however, is a far cry from that. Forget solenoid and think “robo-snake” or artificial monkey tail. Forget about thermal time delays too. Today's polymer actuators convert voltage directly to motion, bending, twisting, and spiraling almost instantaneously on command. It's this articulating movement that separates it from any other actuation technology, and promises to open a whole new field of motion-centric automation.

After you've read the article — if our little green friend on the opening page doesn't deter you — drop us a line and tell us how you envision the new technology at work. Better yet, go to my PowerOn blog at and enter your comments there. Zany or practical, it doesn't matter; it's the churn that drives the creative process.

Unfortunately, I'm not eligible to win any of the fantastic prizes yet TBD, but that won't stop me from sharing my thoughts. One possible application I see for electro-polymer actuation is in linear braking. This would leverage the transition from a relaxed to a serpentine state, employing lateral displacement to somehow generate a friction force along adjacent rails. A good engineer could probably figure out how to rig it so that it's fail-safe on power loss even under a sustained load.

Another application that comes to mind is a dispensing system that creates patterns on complex, multidimensional surfaces. I once worked in the semiconductor industry and I know it wrestles with process constraints imposed by orthogonally oriented tooling and two-dimensional working planes. Other industries contend with similar issues, begging for an infusion of the kind of technology described in Elisabeth's article.

With 3D actuators, it's not hard to imagine a bank of dispensing heads that move autonomously — reaching, swiveling, and retracting — as work in flow passes by. You might have to incorporate a few vision sensors (no big deal) and tie everything to a high-speed controller, perhaps a field-programmable gate array chip. If you're a regular reader, you probably know by now that the developers of LabView, a graphical programming language, have tamed this blazingly fast architecture, allowing system designers to saddle it for their specific needs.

LabView can also simplify the software development task. Not only does it have FPGA support, it's also inherently parallel and would map rather nicely — especially running a neural network — to the array of contact points that would have to be simultaneously controlled to reflexively manipulate the dispensing fingers.

That we're even talking about such things — 3D motors with vision feedback and embedded intelligence — is amazing enough. But we're actually beyond that. In fact, we have everything we need to implement not only the ideas on the table, but also the incredible applications that will occur to you.

So let's have ‘em… your best ideas, whether for fame, fortune, or the satisfaction of playing the game.

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