High tensile strength cables, low-resistance motor windings, and shape memory actuators are common examples of technical fibers used in robots and other electromechanical assemblies. Because properties like tensile strength, crystal structure, and polymer alignment depend strongly on processing history, these materials cannot be 3D printed with the same properties they have on the spool. Strings and fibers are inserted in mechanical parts at the end of the manufacturing process for these assemblies. When the fibers take complex paths, the installation is often done by hand. This activity can dominate the process time, increase its human labor and reduce its social sustainability.
This paper applies the non-traditional approach of machine embroidery to insert sheets of patterned fibers in layered additive manufacturing processes such as 3D printing and lamination. Fibers are aligned with features in laser-cut or printed parts without the manual labor of hand threading. We demonstrate that water-soluble stabilizer materials originally designed for textiles can hold hard mechanical parts in a machine embroidery hoop with enough strength and rigidity to withstand sewing through pre-existing holes in the part. Alignment to within 250 microns has been demonstrated with a sub-$300 consumer embroidery machine.
Case studies in this paper include a cable-driven mechanism, a soft-to-hard electronic connection, and an electromechanical sensor. Process-compatible and commercially available materials that can be embroidered include conductive threads, shrinking threads, water-soluble threads and high tensile strength fibers.
The biggest hurdle for a user interested in this automated fiber installation process is linking the existing design file with an embroidery machine file. There is a much larger user base for 2D and 3D computer-assisted design (CAD) software than for expensive and proprietary embroidery digitizing software. We take the route chosen by the laser cutter industry, where the user produces a CAD file in their preferred editor, and makes annotations that communicate where and how densely to stitch. Translation software scans the file for a particular line style and generates stitch coordinates along it. Development is done in Jupyter/iPython notebooks that allow end-users to inspect, understand, and modify the conversion code. The intent is for users of existing planar fabrication technology (whether laser, printed circuit board, or micro/nano) to apply this method to their own CAD files for a versatile and straightforward way to put advanced materials in their devices without adding manual labor. This general approach can solve a class of assembly problems relevant to underactuated tendon-driven robotics and other electromechanical systems, expanding the range of devices that can be put together using automation.