Centre for Fine Print Research University of the West of England Centre for Fine Print Research

Smart materials and novel actuators: Creative applications in art and design

Awarding body: UWE Early Career Researcher Starter Grant
Awarded to: Dr Peter Walters
Research Co-Investigators: Dr Jonathan Rossiter, Senior Lecturer, Department of Engineering Mathematics, University of Bristol, Dr Ioannis Ieropoulos, Research Fellow, Bristol Robotics Laboratory
Research Associate: David McGoran
Project duration: 01.02.2010 - 31.10.2010

Project details:
Funded by a UWE Early Career Researcher Starter Grant 2009/10, this research project will investigate the use of “smart” shape-changing materials, together with 3D printing and fabrication technologies, in the creative realization of interactive art and design artifacts. For example, an artwork in a gallery, which changes shape in response to the presence of a gallery visitor, or a product which uses physical movement to communicate information to its owner.

Smart materials exhibit changes in their physical properties, such as size or shape, in response to external stimuli (eg temperature, or electric current). Smart materials to be investigated will include, for example, “shape memory” materials, which can function as actuators i.e. devices that provide movement or changes in shape, for robotics and related applications. Research will also investigate the potential use of a live biological material (microorganisms) within a novel “bio-actuator”.
The enquiry aims to demonstrate that smart materials and novel actuators, which are often developed for “space-age” engineering, robotics, and medical applications, are becoming increasingly available and accessible to practitioners within the creative arts. The investigation will explore the technical capabilities of smart materials and novel actuators, and will demonstrate their potential use within art and design applications through the creative production of a series of exemplar artifacts.

related outcomes:

Digital Fabrication of “Smart” Structures and Mechanisms—Creative Applications in Art and Design

Authors:Walters, Peter and McGoran, David


A peer-reviewed conference paper given at the Digital Fabrication 2011 Conference, NIP 27, 27th International Conference on Digital Printing Technologies. This paper describes the design and fabrication of novel “soft” structures and mechanisms employing “smart” shape-changing materials. These structures and mechanisms incorporate shape memory alloy (SMA) micro-actuators, enabling them to exhibit lifelike movement when stimulated by the application of electric current. Fabricated by 3D printing in a soft elastomer material, their design includes internal channels into which the SMA actuators are easily mounted. Other design features allow flexibility of movement and facilitate cooling of the SMA actuators. A tentacle-like active structure is described, which incorporates an antagonistic pair of SMA microactuators, allowing it to exhibit two-way motion. Results are presented for the speed and range of motion of the tentacle-like structure. The paper goes on to describe a creative arts application for smart active structures and mechanisms which exploits the technologies under investigation: an interactive puppet which exhibits lifelike, expressive movement. This research in digital fabrication and smart materials has implications for the fields of interactive and robotic art and design, soft robotics and physical computing.


Digital Fabrication of a Novel Bio-Actuator for Bio-Robotic Art and Design

Authors: Walters, P., McGoran, D., Ieropoulos, I. and Rossiter, J.


A peer-reviewed conference paper given at the Printed Electronics panel at the Digital Fabrication 2011 Conference, NIP 27, 27th International Conference on Digital Printing Technologies. This paper describes the design, fabrication and testing of a biologically-driven actuator which serves as a proof for-concept “artificial heartbeat” for future use within bio-robotic art and design. The actuator employs live biological material, both as a source of power and means of actuation. Pneumatic pressure generated by the action of the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae causes a diaphragm to distend. Movement of the diaphragm is regulated by a purpose-built control valve. When the diaphragm is fully distended, the valve opens to release pressure, returning the actuator to its state of rest in readiness for the next actuation cycle. The control valve employs a temperature-responsive NiTi “artificial muscle” which is activated when heated electrically using power generated by microbial fuel cells. In an alternative embodiment, the NiTi valve is powered by solar energy via photovoltaic panels. Results are presented showing the performance of devices powered by both energy sources. The structure of the bio-actuator is fabricated by 3D printing and rapid tooling techniques. Bio-actuation may be employed for such functions as shape-change, pumping and propulsion. Possible applications for the physical principles described in this paper range from energy autonomous robotics and artificial life to artworks which creatively exploit robotic and bio-technology.


UWE Early Career Researcher Starter Grants
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3D Print Research at the CFPR
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Dr Peter Walters
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