Soft robots imitate the movements and actions of living organisms, making them highly versatile and fascinating. The field of soft robotics is rapidly growing. It aims to create flexible devices for various industries, including healthcare, space exploration, food production, geography, logistics, rehabilitation, defense, and household applications.
What makes soft robots unique is their construction using adaptable materials, which are both lightweight and multifunctional. These robots possess impressive characteristics such as high elasticity, deformability, and the ability to absorb energy, allowing them to quickly recover from physical impacts or distortions. As a result, soft robots hold immense potential for various research endeavors and industrial applications.
Soft robotic exploration is particularly valuable when conventional human intervention is inadequate or inefficient. We can achieve complete automation for cost-effective goods production by employing soft robots in industries, thereby boosting the global economy. Soft robots are poised to become indispensable tools capable of performing various tasks across different industrial sectors. This article provides an overview of the future industrial applications of soft robots while addressing the challenges and offering insights into their prospects.
One of the most significant sectors where soft robots have immense potential is healthcare. They can be employed in surgeries, pain-relieving devices, and even as artificial muscles. Soft robots are particularly valuable in microsurgery, operating inside the body. These miniature robots can be drug carriers for targeted therapies, specifically cancer diagnosis, and treatment. Their safe interaction with the human body makes them ideal tools for surgical procedures and other healthcare applications. Soft robots, known as prosthetic robots, can also aid in repairing or replacing damaged muscles and body parts. Furthermore, soft robots have the potential to save lives by assisting in heart pumping or even functioning as artificial hearts for individuals suffering from heart failure.
The space aviation and research industries constitute another important sector with a growing demand for soft robots. Advanced air carriers are necessary for cost-effective space travel, and the unpredictable space environment requires robots capable of adapting quickly to changing conditions. Soft robots can streamline aircraft examinations (pre-flight checks) and reduce maintenance and repair time. Boeing plans to manufacture aircraft that can fly autonomously using soft robots. Additionally, soft robots can be employed in various airport ground services, such as passenger assistance and housekeeping. For instance, KLM has already tested a soft robot to guide passengers at the airport.
The food and agriculture industries also present a significant demand for automation through robots. Soft robots can contribute to large-scale crop production and management, reducing costs. This is especially important considering farmers’ use of toxic pesticides, which can sometimes lead to health issues for consumers. Soft robots can serve as a viable solution in this regard. Given the scarcity of labor in the agriculture sector, automatic agricultural appliances and soft robots can alleviate the challenges faced by farmers who often work under harsh conditions and at odd hours. Moreover, soft robots can assist in the packing and management of the vast amounts of food materials produced by the agricultural sector.
The energy industry urgently requires soft robots due to their demanding working conditions. As the future moves toward atomic and nuclear energy, soft robots can operate continuously in environments exposed to nuclear radiation. This makes them ideal candidates for tasks in generating atomic and nuclear energy. The defense sector also presents valuable applications for soft robots. Soft robots can perform these tasks efficiently when soldiers need to crawl or operate heavy equipment in hazardous conditions. Additionally, soft robots can be employed in battle damage control, aerial refueling, electronic warfare, mine-laying, and other defense-related activities.
The automobile industry stands out as a major user of soft robots, as contemporary rigid robots have limitations that soft robots can address. Soft robots are highly useful in assembling various parts during manufacturing processes. They can also be utilized for material movement, parts inspection, paint spraying, and more. For example, Mercedes Vision AVTR incorporates a soft robot to assist the driver in communicating with the environment. Soft robots are also valuable in developing fully autonomous cars, trains, and other vehicles.
Due to their controlled locomotion, soft robots have diverse applications in the entertainment, edutainment, and toy industries. They can engage in various activities and captivate children while providing educational content. Soft robots can be utilized to create a wide range of attractive toys, bringing joy to children. In addition, soft robots have practical uses in industries involved in explosive item production and in tasks such as arc welding, spot welding, machine tending, painting, picking, mechanical cutting, gluing, and adhesion.
Challenges and Future Perspective
The potential applications of soft robots in various industries are vast, but several challenges must be addressed. These challenges include improving the efficiency of their operation, enhancing autonomy, optimizing fabrication processes, achieving precise actuation, and developing continuous power generation methods. Designing soft robots that can effectively perform in diverse industrial environments is paramount. This requires using advanced materials and sophisticated simulation techniques to create optimal designs and structures for specific tasks. Incorporating morphological computation, which combines artificial intelligence with the physical embodiment of robots, holds promise for addressing these challenges.
Given the global economic pressures and the demand for affordable goods, the automation of industries using soft robots can contribute to lowering production costs. In light of this, there is a continuous need to develop self-powered, soft assistive, and autonomous robots in the future. As a result, the outlook for the future of soft robots in industrial applications appears highly promising.
The future market outlook for soft robots is highly promising, with an estimated compound annual growth rate of 37% from 2019 to 2024. This growth is driven by the ongoing efforts of researchers and technocrats dedicated to advancing soft robotics to meet the specific needs of various industries. This field’s continuous innovation and development significantly enhance the potential for substantial market expansion for soft robots.
Major industry players like Walmart, Amazon, Costco, and others are recognizing the value of soft robots in warehouse management and operations, further driving the demand for these versatile machines. In essence, the demand for soft robots is expected to grow across all aspects of life, contributing to the market’s overall expansion.
Several companies are actively involved in the development of soft robots, including Empire Robotics, Inc. (USA), Ekso Bionics Holdings Inc. (USA), Soft Robotics, Inc. (USA), Cyberdyne Inc. (Japan), FANUC Corporation (Japan), Franka Emika GmbH (Germany), GLI Technology Ltd. (China), and F & P Personal Robotics (Switzerland). However, while significant progress has been made, full-scale industrial production of soft robots is still underway.
Soft robots are gaining increasing importance across various industrial applications, presenting opportunities for cost-effective production methods. The utilization of soft robots holds the potential to bolster the global economy. Industries such as healthcare, aviation, space exploration, agriculture, food production, logistics, rehabilitation, defense, food & beverage, and household sectors are particularly interested in soft robots’ benefits.
Numerous companies are actively developing efficient soft robots to meet the demands of these industries. However, the development of fully functional soft robots capable of addressing a wide range of applications is an ongoing process that requires continuous efforts and advancements in technology.
The future of robots in industries appears incredibly promising. As soft robots become more prevalent, the cost of production for various commodities is expected to decrease, resulting in a stronger global economy. The potential for soft robots to revolutionize industrial processes and enhance efficiency is a driving force behind their increasing adoption.