Engineers 3D print smart objects with ‘embodied logic’

Even without a brain or a nervous system, the Venus flytrap appears to make sophisticated decisions about when to snap shut on potential prey, as well as to open when it has accidentally caught something it can’t eat.

Researchers at the School of Engineering and Applied Science have taken inspiration from these sorts of systems. Using stimuli-responsive materials and geometric principles, they have designed structures that have “embodied logic.”

3D printer creating a small object
A 3D printer creates a bistable and responsive material, meaning they can hold one of two configurations indefinitely and can change their shape under the correct circumstances. (Video still courtesy: Mack Institute for Innovation Management)

Using multi-material 3D printers, the researchers can make these active structures with nested if/then logic gates, and can control the timing of each gate, allowing for complicated mechanical behaviors in response to simple changes in the environment. For example, by utilizing these principles an aquatic pollution-monitoring device could be designed to open and collect a sample only in the presence of an oil-based chemical and when the temperature is over a certain threshold.

The Penn engineers published an open access study outlining their approach in the journal Nature Communications.

The study was led by Jordan Raney, an assistant professor in Penn Engineering’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, and Yijie Jiang, a postdoctoral researcher in Raney’s lab. Lucia Korpas, a graduate student in Raney’s lab, too, also contributed to the study.

Read more on the Penn Engineering blog.