Microrobots – tiny microscopic robots crawling for example inside a human body? Maybe – at some point – but not in the project FibreNet.
When we in FibreNet speak about microrobotics, we speak about robotic systems that enhance the human capabilities to operate in the microworld, i.e., to handle and characterize microscopic objects, such as pulp fibres.
When trained, a human operator becomes very skilled with working under a microscope and using tweezers to handle microscopic objects. However, manual operation remains slow and tedious, it takes a long time to become a master and there are always differences between operators. Moreover, the measurement of fibre properties by hand is impossible. Thus, measurement instruments of some kind are needed.
This is where microrobotic technologies can help. Microrobotic systems combine high-resolution movement, delicate gripping tools, microscopy and highly sensitive force measurements into a functional computer controlled system which is, however, today still typically human operated. Microrobotic systems of today can be used in microassembly, cell manipulation and material testing applications, for example.
In fibre research, these technologies can be used for better understanding the properties of bio-based fibres and the influence of different functionalizations and treatments on the fibre properties. By using advanced robotic systems designed especially for microscale operations, it is possible to provide precise and repeatable multi-parameter measurements which do not depend on the operator skills and which drastically increase the throughput.
We have already demonstrated the use of microrobotics in multiple fibre research applications including i) measuring tensile and bending stiffness of pulp fibres, ii) measuring fibre-fibre bond strength, iii) characterizing surface wettability by analysing contact angle of droplets on fibre, and iv) measuring interfacial shear strength between a fibre and polymer matrix.
In the project FibreNet, we aim at taking steps further and combine microrobotic tools with advanced computer control and machine learning methods, and thereby to increase reliability and throughput further, such that that studying mechanical properties at a fibre level will become even more relevant both in academic and industrial questions. Eager to see how far in terms of automation we will be able to bring fibre testing in FibreNet.
Pasi Kallio, Professor
Tampere University / MET
Micro- and nanosystems Research Group