Modeled on an Elephant’s Trunk - A High-tech Helper for Industry and the Home

(f.l.t.r.) Dipl.-Ing. (FH) Markus Fischer, Dr.-Ing. Peter Post, Dipl.-Ing. Andrzej Grzesiak

Dr.-Ing. Peter Post (Spokesperson)
Dipl.-Ing. (FH) Markus Fischer
Dipl.-Ing. Andrzej Grzesiak*

Festo AG & Co. KG., Esslingen
*Fraunhofer-Institut für Produktionstechnik und
Automatisierung IPA, Stuttgart

Robots are used in industry to perform heavy work or monotonous or hazardous tasks – and thus relieve their human counterparts. However, these mechanical workers cannot cooperate with humans as a team. Machines are still too awkward and insensitive. A new generation of mechatronic assistants, however, is to become real helpers – and over and above possible applications in industry provide assistance to the ill or infirm. How can this vision be made reality?

Dr.-Ing. Peter Post, Dipl.-Ing. (FH) Markus Fischer and Dipl.-Ing. (FH) Andrzej Grzesiak found the answer to this question in Nature: Using the principle of bionics, the researchers applied natural design principles to an assistance system, evolving them to create a unique handling system with almost human agility, dexterity, and flexibility – light, free-moving and compliant. It can assist humans safely. Peter Post heads the research and development project at Festo; Markus Fischer is responsible for the company’s corporate design – and established the Festo Bionic Learning Network in 2006 in which the company and universities together implement technical concepts modeled on nature. Andrzej Grezsiak is the cooperation partner for the project and head of the Generative Manufacturing group at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA.

The prototype of the “Bionic Handling Assistant” which the three nominated scientists developed resembles an elephant’s trunk. It consists of an artificial trunk, a hand axis and a gripper with three fingers. Its astonishing flexibility is unique. The fingers adapt automatically to every object grasped, and the gripper is able to finely adjust the amount of force exerted on the object. The movements of the artificial appendages are pneumatically controlled by a sophisticated system. Thanks to its extraordinary sensitivity, the mechanical assistant can handle raw eggs, tomatoes or a glass of water with just as much care as animals or humans.

The adaptability of the innovative robotic arm is due to its extremely lightweight design made possible by a 3D printing process which the developers used to manufacture the entire handling assistant, including the gripper and all moving parts. In this process, thin layers in powder form are applied layer for layer to form a flexible plastic and melted with the aid of a laser. This allowed Peter Post, Markus Fischer and Andrzej Grzesiak to avoid complex assembly processes as well as heavy component parts. The prototype of the Bionic Handling Assistant is a design for assistance systems intended to support the elderly and the infirm in their daily lives – for example, by handing them or retrieving foods, drinks or medications. Seniors would thus be given the means to remain living in their own four walls independently and thus have a better quality of life. Other possible applications are found agriculture and industry – for example, in the sorting of flower bulbs, picking fruit, or as part of a milking plant. The Bionic Handling Assistant finds areas of applications as helps for industrial tasks in places which are difficult to access for humans – as assembly hand or during maintenance and cleaning work.

The three nominees developed the innovative mechanical assistant within the framework of Festo’s Bionic Learning Network. The first prototype debuted in 2010. The Festo company hopes to continue its development for various products and thereby enter the promising market for service systems. The light weight of the artificial trunk also opens up great potential in industrial handling technologies. Since there are no heavy parts to be moved, it uses considerably less electrical power than its conventional robotic colleagues.