Space & Innovation

3D-Printed Hand Could Serve as Scaffold for Living Tissue

New biomimetic design could be combined with skin grafts and neuroprosthetics to re-grow human hands. Continue reading →

Thanks to several million years of evolutionary R&D, the human hand is one of the most incredibly complex and sensitive tools ever engineered.

So when it comes to robotic hand design, things have traditionally been ... hmm, challenging is probably an understatement. For decades, robot hand design has tended to favor function over form, drawing from the world of man-made machines rather than intricate biology.

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Researchers at the University of Washington are hoping to take things in another direction. By essentially starting from scratch, they've created a fundamentally different - and rather beautiful - design model for artificial hands.

Zhe Xu and Emanuel Todorov, from the university's Department of Computer Science & Engineering, began by laser scanning the hand of an actual human skeleton and using the data to 3D-print artificial bones. This allowed the researchers to create a baseline structure that accounts for certain peculiarities in the human hand.

Meanwhile, joint ligaments and tendons on the robotic hand were created from the lightweight, high-strength fiber material known as Spectra. Other soft tissues were replicated with laser-cut rubber sheeting, resulting in a layered web-like structure.

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Muscles were made from an array of servos with cable routing designed to mimic the carpal tunnel - the notoriously troublesome passageway between the forearm and the palm. It all adds up to a artificial hand that's eerily precise in its movements, as you can see in the demo video below.

"Our robotic hand design uniquely preserves the important biomechanical information of the human hand on anatomical level," say the researchers in their paper, which will be officially presented at International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) in Stockholm.

The new artificial hand design has potential application in humanoid robotics as well as limb prosthetics. But even more intriguingly, the researchers suggest that - together with advances in neuroprosthetics and skin grafting - the design could be used as 3-D scaffolding for actual limb regeneration.

With the Modular Prosthetic Limb, researchers from Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab have successfully demonstrated the possibilities of controlling artificial limbs simply by thought.