Metallic Glass Gears Up for Collaborative Robots, Coatings, and More

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The place are the robotic assistants we had been promised?

For all of the house that robots have occupied within the in style creativeness for the final hundred years – and though the variety of real-world robots has been rising for many years – most individuals’s interactions with them stay restricted to a hands-free vacuum or youngster’s sensible toy.

There are two major causes for this, in accordance with Glenn Garrett, Chief Know-how Officer of NASA spinoff firm, Amorphology  – value and security. Most automated equipment remains to be solely reasonably priced to giant producers that may make main investments and count on long-term financial savings. And whereas robots take up increasingly more of the manufacturing facility flooring, they’re usually segregated from their human colleagues on account of security issues – largely oblivious to their environment, they’re robust and dangerously clumsy.

Collaborative Robots
Within the mid-1990s, two Northwestern College professors patented another idea beneath a brand new time period – cobots (or collaborative robots) . In comparison with conventional industrial robots, collaborative robots, that are designed to cooperate with people, could be smaller, smarter, extra responsive, and extra conscious, with tighter self-control and higher mannered throughout.

(Collaborative robots) is the place the robotics business goes. But when they value $40,000, they’re out of attain for non-industrial purposes.

  –  Glenn Garrett, CTO, Amorphology

Too Pricey
Within the years since, leaps in synthetic intelligence and sensors have made these “friendlier” robots a actuality. Sadly, value nonetheless limits their widespread adoption.

In keeping with Garrett, the most important value drivers for robots should not at all times the superior software program and sensors. As an alternative, it typically comes right down to among the most rudimentary machine parts – gears, which Garrett estimates account for a minimum of half the price of robotic arms.

Now, Pasadena, California-based Amorphology hopes to drop the value of cobots with advances initially made for robots that had been by no means meant for human interplay – NASA’s planetary rovers (Determine 1, beneath).

Rovers Adapt to Martian Local weather
Gears on NASA’s rovers, like most gears on Earth, are product of metal, which is each robust and put on resistant. However metal gears want liquid lubrication, and oils don’t work properly in frigid environments just like the lunar or Martian floor.

Mars Rover 2020

Determine 1: NASA’s Curiosity rover spends about three hours heating up lubricants for its gears every time it units out throughout Mars. To assist future rovers save time and power, NASA invested in bulk metallic glass for gears that require no lubrication. (Credit: NASA)

In keeping with Doug Hofmann, Principal Scientist of the Supplies Growth and Manufacturing Know-how group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), it is for that reason that NASA’s Curiosity rover spends about three hours warming up lubricants each time it prepares to begin rolling. This course of makes use of up a couple of quarter of the discretionary power that might in any other case be used for science.

With an eye fixed towards fixing this and different materials-related points, in 2010, JPL employed Hofmann, then a analysis scientist at California Institute of Know-how (Caltech) with a background in supplies science and engineering. NASA funded a brand new metallurgy facility on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to discover alternate options for gears and develop new steel alloys.

Bulk Metallic Glass
From his days at Caltech, which manages JPL, Hofmann was conversant in an rising class of specifically engineered supplies known as bulk metallic glass, also referred to as amorphous metals. These are steel alloys that may be quickly cooled from liquid to strong earlier than their atoms kind the crystalline lattice construction that’s widespread to all different metals. As an alternative, the atoms are randomly organized like these of glass, giving the supplies properties of each glass and steel.

Metallic Glass Gears

Determine 2: Most metallic glass alloys kind a tough, clean floor. This offers metallic glass gears a protracted lifetime with out the necessity for liquid lubricants, making them interesting for NASA robotics that function in chilly environments, the place lubricants should be warmed earlier than operations.

Relying on their constituent parts – typically together with zirconium, titanium, and copper – steel alloys might be very robust, and since they don’t seem to be crystalline, they’re elastic. Most compositions additionally kind a tough, clean ceramic oxide floor, and these properties collectively afford gears product of some amorphous metals a protracted lifetime with no lubrication (Determine 2, above).

In keeping with Hofmann, it’s the distinctive properties metallic glass alloys that makes them enticing to NASA. Metallic glass gears don’t require liquid lubricants. Metallic glass gears also can function in temperatures beneath minus 290 levels Fahrenheit with out requiringa heating supply.

(The Flexplines) is a really strange-looking gear when you’ve got by no means seen it, however it’s the coronary heart and soul of a precision robotic.

–  Glenn Garrett, CTO, Amorphology

Inexpensive Robotic Elements
Amorphous metals have one other property that makes them enticing for gears on Earth. The alloys used to make metallic glass have low melting temperatures.

Most high-strength metals have excessive melting factors. They can’t be solid with molds as a result of, in molten kind, they’d merely soften the mould. And metal must be rolled or solid to strengthen it, which additionally precludes molding. So, gears usually begin as metal billets which are ‘machined’ – lower, floor, milled, and drilled – into their remaining form. Tiny gears, like these for small cobots, are particularly difficult – and dear.


Determine three: Flexsplines are skinny, versatile, cup-shaped gears integral to pressure wave gears widespread in robotics. They’re usually lower, floor, and drilled from metal billets in a course of that’s lengthy and dear. The flexspline on the suitable was injection molded from metallic glass in a less expensive, easier course of.

The low melting level of alloys used to make metallic glass, along with their native power, and the truth that their quantity hardly modifications upon solidifying, makes bulk metallic glasses simple to make use of in injection molding. Injection molding can dramatically scale back the price of making elements like gears.

Essentially the most troublesome, costly gear element to machine from a metal block is likely one of the most typical in robotic arms – the flexspline. Flexsplines are extraordinarily thin-walled, versatile cups with a toothed rim (Determine three, above).

Flexplines are the centerpiece of what’s generally known as a pressure wave gear meeting (Determine four, beneath). Pressure wave gears present higher precision, increased torque, and decrease backlash than different gear units. This eliminates positioning errors which might be compounded in a robotic limb with a number of joints.

Determine four: A pressure wave gear converts the quick, low-torque rotation of an engine into sluggish, exact, forceful movement. Because the rectangular wave generator on the heart spins, it deforms the flexspline round it, proven in purple, which engages with the enamel of a set outer spline. The interplay causes the flexspline to rotate in the wrong way of the wave generator, shifting solely two enamel for every flip of the motor. (Credit: Jahobr, CC0

In keeping with Hoffman, it’s injection molding of pressure wave gears with amorphous metals that guarantees the best financial savings. Injection molding prices about half as a lot as machining pressure wave gears from metal.

Amorphology’s Enterprise Plan
Molding small, high-performance planetary and pressure wave gears grew to become the central marketing strategy for Amorphology, which Hofmann cofounded in 2014. By way of Caltech, the corporate licensed a number of patents for know-how he had developed for NASA.

In the meantime, Hofmann and colleagues continued pursuing new supplies for spacecraft at each the metallurgy lab and JPL’s Additive Manufacturing Heart. A variety of patents and applied sciences led Hofmann to discovered a second spinoff firm centered on utilizing amorphous metals in coatings, 3D printing, and different non-gear-related purposes. Each had been backed by the identical enterprise capital group, and in 2020 they merged beneath the Amorphology identify, combining about 30 patents and patent purposes for the know-how from JPL.

Amorphology’s first and largest buyer is likely one of the world’s foremost producers of pressure wave gears. As well as, a minimum of one different buyer has employed the corporate to coat shopper electronics elements with metallic glass, making them extra sturdy, indicating one other market with fast potential.

A Market Past Mars
Additionally in 2020, the merged firm completed its transfer into a brand new, 13,000-square-foot manufacturing facility the place about 15 individuals now work, principally making and testing prototype items for small gear assemblies for a number of prospects.

Amorphology’s first and largest buyer is likely one of the world’s foremost producers of pressure wave gears. As well as, a minimum of one different buyer has employed the corporate to coat shopper electronics elements with metallic glass, making them extra sturdy, indicating one other market with fast potential. Hofmann famous that gears that may function with out lubrication are additionally of curiosity to companies like meals manufacturing, the place lubricants can turn into contaminants.

In the meantime, lots of the firm’s different patents for JPL know-how – all licensed from Caltech – are in all probability nonetheless years away from commercialization, though they’re in fields which are gaining heavy curiosity. Amongst these are new alloys and superior steel 3D printing applied sciences, from thermal spray additive manufacturing to ultrasonic welding.

NASA Know-how Switch
NASA has a protracted historical past of transferring know-how to the non-public sector, and Amorphology just isn’t the primary firm to commercialize improvements in bulk metallic glass from JPL and Caltech. However Garrett notes that making a startup based mostly on new supplies is notoriously troublesome. If lubrication-free gears or low-cost flexsplines discover a long-term market, “that may be an enormous step in the direction of sustained industrial success for bulk metallic glass,” he stated.

Editor’s Be aware: This text was republished (with alterations) with permission from Spinoff. The unique might be discovered HERE.

In regards to the Creator

Mike DiCiccoMike DiCicco is a longtime author and Managing Editor for Spinoff, a publication of the Know-how Switch program in NASA’s House Know-how Mission Directorate. Spinoff profiles NASA applied sciences which have reworked into industrial services and products, demonstrating the broader advantages of America’s funding in its house program.

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