These Soft Robotic Grippers Were Inspired by an Ancient Japanese Art Form

BU mechanical engineers borrowed techniques from kirigami paper-cutting art to create grippers that safely grasp different objects

Video produced by Devin Hawn and Aaron Hwang (ENG ’21) for BU Brink.

Boston University engineers have developed a unique way to use an ancient Japanese art form for a very 21st-century purpose. BU College of Engineering associate professor Douglas Holmes (ME, MSE) studies how materials change shape when they are bent or warped by external forces. In a paper published this week in Science Robotics, Holmes BU PhD student Yi Yang and ENG alum Katie Vella demonstrate how they were inspired by kirigami, the traditional Japanese art of paper cutting (cousin of origami paper-folding art), to design soft robotic grippers. By cutting sheets of plastic in specific shapes, and then bending them in a specific way, the plastic morphs into a gripper that can safely and securely pick up objects of various size, weight, shape, and fragility. Using the kirigami technique, they’ve developed grippers so small they can pick up a single grain of sand, and large enough to pick up a bottle of water. Holmes and Yang hope that this research will make a significant contribution to the emerging field of soft robotics.