The aim of the project is to additively manufacture functional mechatronic converters in a manufacturing process that are designed for industrial use in order to show their technological superiority over conventional approaches. Furthermore, different manufacturing strategies are to be selected and evaluated for the application of the flexible actuators or sensors, from which guidelines for the manufacture and use of these systems can be derived. These simplify the technology entry for interested users and make the smart materials accessible to a broader spectrum of users.
For many years, dielectric elastomers (DE) as so-called “smart materials” have been the subject of intensive research. The high potential of DE could already be demonstrated using exemplary application demonstrators from a wide variety of areas. When used as actuators, DE are used to convert electrical energy into mechanical movement, whereas the variable electrical parameters are used for signals in sensor applications. The structure is similar to that of a flexible plate capacitor with highly flexible electrodes and a thin insulating polymer film in between. When a high voltage is applied, the electrostatic attraction of the two flat electrodes leads to pressure on the material between them. This force leads to a reduction in thickness and, due to the incompressibility, to an expansion in the electrode plane. The change in geometry, which can also be caused by external mechanical stress, also leads to a change in capacitance, which can be used as a sensor signal and as feedback for a controlled actuator. Further advantages of DE are primarily its low weight, low manufacturing costs, energy efficiency and its high adaptability.
However, in many research projects electrodes are still applied manually, dielectric layers are cast by hand and the systems are generally difficult to manufacture as holistic products in an industrial context. The commercialized sensors from Leap Technologies and from StrechSense, which are used in motion capturing applications, are the only two examples of an integrated technology on the market based on DE. However, these still have to be adapted to the respective application by potential customers for ideal operation.
The great adaptability of this technology with all its advantages offers enormous potential, but makes it very confusing and difficult to access for the user. There is not only a lack of reliable and economical manufacturing processes, but also of real application in industrial use. Small and medium-sized companies in particular cannot take the risk associated with getting started with a new technology and often do not have their own development departments with sufficient capacity.
Picture: Print of RTV-2 silicones; Source: FAPS; FAU
Benefits and economic importance for SMEs
Due to the size of SMEs, they rarely have their own research and development department and are therefore often dependent on the know-how of external companies and partners. Thanks to the pre-development within the project, the companies involved benefit directly from the project content and thus generate an innovative edge. The exemplary applications can also serve as a starting point and reference for other related applications.