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Doctoral student Sebastian Gratz-Kelly from Professor Stefan Seelecke's research group demonstrates the prototype glove that will be showcased at Hannover Messe.

Smart glove with ultra-thin flexible film developed for Industry 4.0

Image credit: Oliver Dietze

Researchers at Saarland University in Germany have created an ultra-thin flexible film, integrated within a glove, that can act as a sensor for innovative technologies, allowing for communication of the current position of the wearer’s hand and fingers.

According to members of the team who created the film, it can establish a direct connection between the virtual and real working worlds, where man and machine could work hand-in-hand.

The research team led by Professor Stefan Seelecke achieved this through the use of smart silicone films, with another goal of the research work being to assist the wearer of the glove by transmitting tactile signals, such as pulses or vibrations, that are produced by the polymer film.

The researchers took an ultra-lightweight, highly flexible film made from an elastic polymer and have turned it into an adaptable “sensory organ” for a variety of technical applications.

By lining a glove with the polymer film, manufacturers can create a man-machine interface without the need for heavy sensors or cameras. This can be done by the ultra-thin plastic film that is not felt by the wearer and does not restrict them when carrying out their work.

“The film we use is known as a dielectric elastomer and the glove essentially functions as a flexible sensor,” explained Professor Seelecke, who heads research teams at the Intelligent Material Systems Lab at the university and at ZeMA (Centre for Mechatronics and Automation Technology) in Saarbrücken.

An electrically conducting material is printed onto both sides of the silicone film. When a voltage is applied to the film, the resulting electrostatic attractive forces cause the film to compress. This extends the film laterally and thus increasing its surface area, which in turn alters the electrical capacitance of the film.

This property effectively transforms the film into a sensor. “We can assign a precise electrical capacitance value to any particular position of the film,” said Steffen Hau, a PhD engineer working in Seelecke’s team.

The engineers therefore know at any moment just how a finger is stretching, pulling or compressing the film. Using algorithms, the team was able to compute these motion sequences in a control unit and then process the results with a computer.

Doctoral student Sebastian Gratz-Kelly from Professor Stefan Seelecke's research group demonstrates the prototype glove

PhD student Sebastian Gratz-Kelly from Professor Stefan Seelecke's research group demonstrates the prototype glove; Oliver Dietze

Image credit: Oliver Dietze

Furthering the development process, the researchers aim to enable the glove to communicate directly with the wearer by means of tactile signals, such as pulses or vibrations, that would be sensed by the wearer’s fingers.

“The computer could then send, for instance, a pulsed signal to the operator’s fingertips to tell them, ‘You’ve taken the wrong component’, or a vibrating signal to confirm, ‘That is the right component”,” Hau explained .

The thin silicone can also be made to pulse or vibrate on demand or to take up any required shape. The researchers can control their silicone film and can continuously vary the frequency of its motion as required, from high-frequency vibrations down to a slow pulsing or flexing motion.

In the future, this responsive film could be used to prevent assembly operators or technicians picking up the wrong component for sorting bins.

The team plans to showcase the protype glove at the technical trade fair Hannover Messe from the 1-5 April 2019 at the Saarland Research and Innovation Stand.

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