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Laser-Cutting Pneumatics

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Pneumatic devices require tight tolerances to keep them leak-free. Specialized companies offer various off-the-shelf devices, while these work well for many applications, there are also situations where custom design and production of pneumatic parts are desired. Cost efficiency, design flexibility, rapid prototyping, and MRI compatibility requirements are reasons why we investigated a method to design and produce different pneumatic devices using a laser cutter from acrylic, acetal, and rubber-like materials. The properties of the developed valves, pneumatic cylinders, and stepper motors were investigated. At 4-bar working pressure, the 4/3-way valves are capable of 5-Hz switching frequency and provide at most 22-L/min airflow. The pneumatic cylinder delivers 48 N of force, the acrylic stepper motor 30 N. The maximum switching frequency over 6-m long transmission lines is 4.5 Hz, using 2-mm tubing. A MRI-compatible robotic biopsy system driven by the pneumatic stepper motors is also demonstrated. We have shown that it is possible to construct pneumatic devices using laser-cutting techniques. This way, plastic MRI-compatible cylinders, stepper motors, and valves can be developed. Provided that a laser-cutting machine is available, the described pneumatic devices can be fabricated within hours at relatively low cost, making it suitable for rapid prototyping applications.
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1604 IEEE/ASME TRANSACTIONS ON MECHATRONICS, VOL. 21, NO. 3, JUNE 2016
Laser-Cutting Pneumatics
Vincent Groenhuis and Stefano Stramigioli
Abstract
Pneumatic devices require tight tolerances to
keep them leak-free. Specialized companies offer various
off-the-shelf devices, while these work well for many ap-
plications, there are also situations where custom design
and production of pneumatic parts are desired. Cost effi-
ciency, design flexibility, rapid prototyping, and MRI com-
patibility requirements are reasons why we investigated a
method to design and produce different pneumatic devices
using a laser cutter from acrylic, acetal, and rubber-like ma-
terials. The properties of the developed valves, pneumatic
cylinders, and stepper motors were investigated. At 4-bar
working pressure, the 4/3-way valves are capable of 5-Hz
switching frequency and provide at most 22-L/min airflow.
The pneumatic cylinder delivers 48 N of force, the acrylic
stepper motor 30 N. The maximum switching frequency over
6-m long transmission lines is 4.5 Hz, using 2-mm tubing. A
MRI-compatible robotic biopsy system driven by the pneu-
matic stepper motors is also demonstrated. We have shown
that it is possible to construct pneumatic devices using
laser-cutting techniques. This way, plastic MRI-compatible
cylinders, stepper motors, and valves can be developed.
Provided that a laser-cutting machine is available, the de-
scribed pneumatic devices can be fabricated within hours
at relatively low cost, making it suitable for rapid prototyp-
ing applications.
Index Terms
Biopsy, magnetic resonance imaging,
medical robotics, pneumatic actuators, pneumatic systems.
I. INTRODUCTION
PNEUMATIC cylinders are used in many applications.
These come in different sizes and are being produced by
many companies worldwide. The key elements are the bore, pis-
ton, and seal, and are normally cylindrically shaped and made of
metal. Pressurized air exerts a force on the piston, which causes
it to slide within the bore. The sliding seal ensures that no air
escapes from the chamber.
Sometimes, a custom cylinder design is desired, for example,
when integrating one or more cylinders in a small mechani-
cal device. Also, MRI compatible systems restrict the usage of
metallic materials, because of the strong magnetic field involved
in MRI scanners. Furthermore, the commercial pneumatic de-
vices are often too expensive for low-cost projects by hobbyists.
So, there is a desire for a method to design and produce custom
pneumatic parts quickly and at relatively low cost.
With the advent of the accessible rapid prototyping services,
more and more robotic devices are (partially) being 3-D printed
Manuscript received September 15, 2015; revised November 12,
2015; accepted December 3, 2013. Date of publication December 11,
2015; date of current version April 28, 2016. Recommended by Technical
Editor Y. Tian.
The authors are with the University of Twente, Enschede 7522NB,
The Netherlands (e-mail: v.groenhuis@utwente.nl; s.stramigioli@
utwente.nl).
Color versions of one or more of the figures in this paper are available
online at http://ieeexplore.ieee.org.
Digital Object Identifier 10.1109/TMECH.2015.2508100
Fig. 1. Pneumatic devices. (a) Pneumatic linear stepper motor (left)
and servo-controlled valve manifold (right). (b) MRI-compatible biopsy
robot driven by pneumatic linear stepper motors.
[1]–[4] or laser-cut [5], both by researchers and hobbyists. A
laser cutter can cut out complex 2-D shapes with high precision
from plates of various materials. In this paper, we propose a
method to assemble functional pneumatic devices (cylinders,
valves, and linear stepper motors) from laser-cut parts. The
properties of these devices are then measured and discussed.
A functional prototype of an MRI-compatible robotic device is
also presented.
A. Earlier Research
No earlier records involving functional laser-cut pneumatic
devices could be found. While laser-cutting techniques are used
extensively in different fields of engineering [5], it is (appar-
ently) not yet used for manufacturing pneumatic devices. So, in
this section, we focus on existing MRI-compatible pneumatic
(stepper) motor designs, as the MRI compatibility requirement
1083-4435 © 2015 IEEE. Translations and content mining are permitted for academic research only. Personal use is also permitted, but republication/redistribution
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GROENHUIS AND STRAMIGIOLI: LASER-CUTTING PNEUMATICS 1605
Fig. 2. Two plastic pneumatic rotational stepper motors found in the
literature. (a) Four-phase pneumatic motor [7]. (b) Rotational stepping
actuator [8].
is one of the reasons to justify the development of the laser-cut
pneumatic devices.
The Pneustep was developed in 2007 by Stoianovici et al.
[6]. It is a rotational stepper motor with three chambers, which
are alternatingly pressurized, driving a circular gear. A different
design of the same kind of motor is given in Fig. 2(b), which
was developed by Sajima et al. [8].
Most off-the-shelf pneumatic cylinders involve metallic ma-
terials, but there also exist commercial plastic pneumatic cylin-
ders. The miniature LEGO pneumatic cylinder (part x189c01)
is a fully plastic pneumatic cylinder, which could be used in
the MRI-compatible systems. Chen et al. combined two of such
cylinders to construct a four-phase rotational stepper motor [see
Fig. 2(a)] [7], while it proved to be effective, the motor is also
quite large compared to the pneumatic cylinder size.
II. METHODS
In this section, it is described how a laser-cut pneumatic piston
can be designed and constructed.
A. Cylinder Geometry
The basic cylinder consists of a housing assembled from mul-
tiple laser-cut parts, stacked, and fixed together with screws. See
Fig. 3(a), for a computer-aided design (CAD) model. The hous-
ing basically consists of three layers (bottom, middle, and top).
Additional, thin sheets can be used to increase the thickness
of the middle layer. A piston is then placed in the opening
of the middle layer, and a box-shaped rubber seal, adjacent to
the piston, seals off the air chamber. When the parts are suffi-
ciently smooth and well tightened together, then no gaskets are
needed to avoid air leakages. This way, a single-acting pneu-
matic cylinder with an approximate rectangular cross section is
constructed.
B. Materials
Poly(methyl methacrylate) (PMMA, acrylic, Plexiglas, Per-
spex, from now on called “acrylic”) and Polyoxymethylene
(POM, acetal, Delrin, Ertacetal, from now on called “acetal”)
Fig. 3. Design and realization of a single-acting cylinder. (a) CAD
model. (b) Realization.
are smooth, strong plastics that are well suited for laser cutting.
These can be used for the cylinder housing and the piston. Ex-
truded acrylic plates tend to have less variations in thickness
than cast acrylic. Acetal plates also tend to be more constant in
thickness than acrylic plates.
Sheets of paper or polyester (0.1–0.2 mm) can be used as spac-
ers. Silicone rubber or Trotec laserrubber (a rubber-like mate-
rial intended for laser-engraving stamps) of thickness 1.5–3 mm
can be used for sliding seals within the bore, and for pneumatic
routing between plates. Standard off-the-shelf pneumatic tub-
ing (e.g., polyurethane 2 or 4 mm) is used to supply air to the
chambers.
Metal (brass, steel) or plastic (nylon) screws can be used as
fastener, in combination with nuts or tapped holes in the bottom
(or top) part. Metal screws can yield higher compression forces,
but only the plastic ones are MRI compatible. A sealant such
as blue silicone (Loctite 5926) can also be used to make the
housing completely airtight.
C. Dimensions and Tolerances
Pneumatic cylinders only work smoothly and leak-free when
the dimensions of all parts are accurately designed and fabri-
cated. See Fig. 4(a), for a cross section of the cylinder, showing
the housing (red), piston (green), and spacer(s) (blue). (For in-
terpretation of the references to colors in the figure, the reader
is referred to the web version of this paper.)
The cylinder housing needs to have relatively thick walls, to
resist bulging of the parts under pressure. This is a limitation
that circular cylinders do not have.
To slide a piston smoothly and without wobbling, there
should be some small clearance around all sides [m0and m1
in Fig. 4(a)], in the order of 0.05 0.10 mm. So, we need to
have an air chamber height of hb=hp+0.15(±0.05) mm. One
option is to use a spacer with thickness hs=0.15(±0.05) mm.
Another option is to reduce the piston plate’s thickness hpusing
laser engraving, or by grinding with sand paper. A third option is
to cut the parts out of different plates (or from different regions
of the same plate), from which the difference in plate thickness
hhp=0.15(±0.05) mm.
The seal is constructed by cutting out a rectangular (or trape-
zoidal) shape from a sheet of rubber-like material. Many other
seal types (e.g., lip seals) cannot be easily manufactured by
laser cutting, and off-the-shelf seals are not available for rect-
angular cylinders.
1606 IEEE/ASME TRANSACTIONS ON MECHATRONICS, VOL. 21, NO. 3, JUNE 2016
Fig. 4. Cylinder and kerf geometries. (a) Cylinder cross section (not
to scale) consisting of housing (red), piston (green), and spacer (blue).
(b) Top view of cylinder showing housing (red), piston (green), and seal
(yellow). (c) Laser kerf dimensions.
See Fig. 4(b), for a top view of the seal’s geometry. The
seal (yellow) must fully cover the cross-sectional area of the
bore to avoid the leakage of air wst >w
c. It is also required to
have wsb <=wpto avoid the jamming of the seal between the
piston (green) and cylinder housing (red). So, the seal needs to
have a trapezoidal cross section. When the seal is laser-cut, the
laser kerf’s edges are slanted with some angle α, which can be
exploited to obtain the desired shape. It is also possible to hand-
cut the seals with a knife; while this is less accurate than laser
cutting, it allows for a larger angle αand, thus, more tolerance.
See the right part of Fig. 5, for some laser-cut and hand-cut
seals, photographed from different sides.
Because of the thickness variation of plates, the dimensioning
of certain parts (e.g., seals) may need to be adapted to the actual
thickness of other parts [e.g., hbin Fig. 4(a)]. The manufactur-
ing procedure is as follows: 1) Manufacture cylinder housing
and piston. 2) Measure hb. 3) Design and manufacture seal. 4)
Evaluate performance of assembled cylinder. 5) In case of air
leakage or excessive seal friction, repeat from step 3.
D. Kerf Geometry
When the laser cutter cuts out a piece, material is molten
and evaporated along the cutting line. The gap is called the kerf
[see Fig. 4(c)], and knowledge about its geometry is essential to
obtain parts with the right dimensions. Its cross-sectional shape
is approximately trapezoid. The dimensions {kt,k
b}depend on
the material type, thickness d, laser type, lens’ focal distance
and focal point, cutting power, speed, frequency, assistant gas,
and the local temperature, which in turn depends on the cutting
Fig. 5. Various parts laser-cut from acetal (left), acrylic (middle), and
silicone rubber (right).
trajectory. The kerf’s edges should be as smooth as possible,
as grooved edges negatively affect the cylinder performance.
The optimal settings to obtain a good and clean cut can be
determined experimentally. When the working settings are de-
termined for a certain material, its kerf can be measured and
can be accounted for in the initial design, and then be further
optimized experimentally.
The trapezoidal shape of the kerf implies that all the walls
of the cut-out parts have slanted edges with angle α.Thisis
not necessarily a problem, as it can be accounted for in the
design. For example, the piston can be placed upside-down in
the housing [visualized in Fig. 4(a)], so that the slanted edges
of the housing and piston are approximately parallel. The seals
also make use of the slanted edges resulting from laser cutting,
to control the difference in dimensions wst and wsb in Fig. 4(b).
III. PRODUCTION
A. Cylinders
In this section, the production process of several pneumatic
cylinders and other parts are described, in increasing complexity.
1) Single-Acting Cylinder:
The simplest design is a
single-acting cylinder. It consists of just one chamber, which
can be pressurized, pushing away a box-shaped piston. The
design is given in Fig. 3(a), and the realization in Fig. 3(b).
The housing (40.0 mm ×60.0 mm ×17.5 mm) and piston
parts were cut out of 6-mm extruded acrylic actual thickness
(5.77 ±0.03) mm, 0.1-mm polyester foil was used as spacer,
and 2-mm-thick silicone rubber as seal. Nylon M4 screws were
used to hold the housing together. The bore dimensions are
w=24.0 mm, h=5.87 mm, giving a cross-sectional area of
141 mm2. The theoretical force exerted by the piston is then
F=P·A= 141 ×106P(equivalent to 84.6 N at 6 bar).
The seal is trapezoidally shaped, and different dimensions
were tested. Eventually, the optimal shape was found to be a
trapezoid sized 24.44 mm ×6.01 mm, with slanted edges of
1.0.
The piston can extend all way out of the cylinder (travel 50
mm), and there is no return mechanism. Also, because the seal is
not affixed to the piston but sliding freely, outstroke movements
are only allowed when the cylinder chamber is pressurized. Oth-
erwise, the seal would lose contact with the piston, and become
dislocated rendering it ineffective. In practice, it depends on
GROENHUIS AND STRAMIGIOLI: LASER-CUTTING PNEUMATICS 1607
Fig. 6. Design and realization of double-acting cylinder. (a) Top view
of design. (b) Realization.
the application whether this is a problem or not. It is also
possible to implement an (elastic) spring return mechanism,
but an important drawback is that this considerably reduces the
effective force of the pneumatic cylinder.
2) Double-Acting Cylinder:
A double-acting cylinder is
more useful than a single-acting cylinder, as this can perform
both outstroke and instroke motions. The simplest way is to
connect two single-acting cylinders opposite to each other. One
design is shown in Fig. 6(a). It consists of a J-shaped piston
(acetal, green) with a protruding rod, in an acrylic housing
(88 mm length). There are two chambers which are sealed off
with silicone rubber seals (yellow) and act on the piston. De-
pending on which chamber is pressurized, outstroke or instroke
motion (travel 24 mm) is performed. The rod does not pass
through either chamber, because it would be very difficult to
seal it properly.
B. Stepper Motors
A double-acting cylinder has two well-defined states, with the
piston being in either extreme position. Controlling the piston
to intermediate positions as well is difficult: it would require
position feedback and precise pressure control, and it would
result in a compliant actuator due to the compressibility of air,
which is generally not desired. So, in this section a different
mechanism, a three-phase pneumatic linear stepper motor, is
presented which is relatively easy to drive and allows discrete
position control of an arbitrary long rack.
The schematic mechanism of the stepper motor is shown in
Fig. 7. The rack (yellow) slides to left or right, when the three-
toothed pistons (red, blue, green) move up and down in the
correct order, working as a wedge on the rack. The step size is
one-third of the pitch P. Each piston is driven by a separate
double-acting cylinder, so there are six pressure chambers in
total.
1) Symmetric Stepper Motor:
The symmetric stepper mo-
tors [see Fig. 8(a), right, and Fig. 8(b)] use rectangular pistons.
First, the housing was constructed, consisting of seven layers
Fig. 7. Stepper motor mechanism showing rack (yellow) and three
pistons (red, blue, green).
Fig. 8. Various stepper motors made of different combinations of
acrylic and acetal. (a) Small (left) and large (right) acrylic/acetal mo-
tors. (b) Fully acetal motor.
sized 72 mm ×36 mm from a 4-mm-thick acrylic or acetal
plate. A few spacers (0.1 or 0.2-mm paper or polyester) were
also cut out, and also the 4-mm-thick pistons (without teeth).
The spacers were added between the layers such that the pis-
tons could just slide smoothly with as little clearance as pos-
sible, while the housing was tightened with the (metallic or
nylon) screws. The resulting bore cross-sectional area is 20.0 ×
4.10 mm2=82.0 mm2.
After finishing the housing, the seals were produced. In cer-
tain motors, the seals were cut with a knife, in the other ones
the seals were laser-cut. The seal’s dimensions were repeatedly
adjusted until the pneumatic cylinders operated smoothly with
neither significant air leakage nor excessive friction.
Next, the exact distances between the pistons in the housing
were measured in order to calculate the piston teeth shape, as
these have to be phased 120apart. After laser cutting, the teeth
pieces (pitch 2, 3 or 4 mm, and depth 5 or 6 mm), the acrylic
ones were glued to the pistons, while the acetal teeth were snap-
fit into its locations. Fig. 5 shows some pistons and racks made
from both materials.
2) Miniature Asymmetric Stepper Motor:
The available
volume within the symmetric stepper motor can be used more
efficiently by using the asymmetric double-acting cylinders as
described in Section III-A2. As the piston only performs effec-
tive work during outstroke, less force is needed for the instroke
motion, which can be driven by a smaller chamber.
1608 IEEE/ASME TRANSACTIONS ON MECHATRONICS, VOL. 21, NO. 3, JUNE 2016
Fig. 9. Schematics and working principle of 4/3-way and 4/2-way servo
valves. Pairs of orifices (blue) are connected depending on the valve
wheel position (red). S: pressurized air supply; E: exhaust; A and B:
outputs to double-acting pneumatic cylinder. (a) Left: 4/3-way servo valve
symbol. Right: Corresponding positions of valve wheel. (b) 4/2-way servo
valve symbol (left) and wheel positions (right).
The layer thickness was also optimized to achieve a cross-
sectional area of 15.50 mm ×6.10 mm =94.6 mm2for the
outstroke, which is slightly higher than that of the symmetric
stepper motor. The resulting miniature motor (see Fig. 8(a),
left) measures 36 mm ×28 mm ×30 mm, a 58% size reduc-
tion compared to the symmetric stepper motor sized 72 mm ×
36 mm ×28 mm.
IV. VALVES
Valves are needed to control the pneumatic cylinders and step-
per motors described in the previous sections. A valve consists
of a mechanism that can open and close pneumatic connections.
Like the pneumatic cylinders, the valves can also be constructed
with the laser-cutting techniques. In this section, several design
strategies and motorized pneumatic valves are presented.
A. Servo Valve
A piece of 2-mm-thick acetal, laser-cut (9-mm outer diame-
ter), and engraved to produce grooves (1 mm depth) based on
the design in Fig. 9(a) (right), shown in Fig. 10(a), is pressed
against an acetal plate with 1-mm orifices [see Fig. 10(f)].
The exhaust orifice is a 1-mm groove. By rotating the wheel
over 45, the interconnections between the orifices are changed
and different functional states [see Fig. 9(a)] can be reached.
Variable flow control is also possible by microadjusting the
wheel position using an r/c servo. The wheel is connected to
this servo by means of a gear shaft coupler with an elastomeric
spring [see Fig. 10(e)], to compensate for any angular misalign-
ment. Thanks to the low inherent friction of acetal, relatively
little torque is needed to rotate the part, which can be performed
by a low-cost micro servo like the Hextronic HXT900 or Mod-
elcraft YH-3009 as used here.
The specified switching time of a common microservo is
0.08 s per 50. For a 4/3-way valve, a rotation of 90, taking
0.14 s, is needed to toggle a pneumatic cylinder. Some additional
Fig. 10. Valve wheel (a), elastomeric spring (b), servo shaft connector
(c), spindle (d), stack of parts a-c (e), base plate with orifices and exhaust
(f), gear shaft coupler (parts a-d) mounted on servo (g).
time is needed for acceleration and to change the pressure inside
the tubing and chambers, before the piston can start moving to
its new position. The upper limit of the operating frequency is
thus below 7.0 Hz. For a 4/2-way valve, the switching angle is
45, which can be performed in approximately half the time.
Multiple valves can be placed in a row, to form a manifold.
In Fig. 1(a) (right), four valves are mounted adjacently in one
package.
B. Motor-Controlled 8/6-Way Pneumatic Distributor
A pneumatic stepper motor as decribed in Section III-B con-
tains three double-acting pistons. These could be controlled with
the three independent 4/2-way valves, but it is also possible to
control all three pistons with a single motor-driven 8/6-way
pneumatic distributor. The continuously rotating part houses an
8-shaped rubber ring, which is tightly pressed against an acrylic
plate with seven orifices.
See Fig. 11(a), for the ring and orifices layout. Pressurized
air enters the center orifice (S), and flows through those other
orifices that are in the interior area of the rubber ring. The orifices
that lie outside the rubber ring’s perimeter are allowed to exhaust
air to the environment directly. The ring is point-symmetric, so
that the forces are balanced and the ring does not tilt to one side.
In one full cycle in which the rubber ring rotates 180, each
of the six orifices are pressurized and depressurized at different
moments within the cycle. The duty cycle (ratio of pressuriza-
tion time) depends on the distance from the rotational center,
while the phase within the cycle depends on the angular position.
With the configuration in Fig. 11(a), the six orifices can be con-
nected to the six chambers of a stepper motor in such a way that
each piston goes up and down once per cycle, phased 120apart;
during 33% of the time two pistons are pushing against the rack
and during 67% of the time only one piston pushes against the
rack. This is meant to reduce unnecessary stress on the teeth.
The speed can be controlled by changing motor current, and
some form of the position feedback (e.g., with an optical quadra-
ture encoder) would be required to track the revolutions. Real-
izations of the design are shown in Fig. 11(b) and (c).
V. APPLICATIONS IN A MRI-COMPAT I B LE ROBOTIC SYSTEM
A 7-DOF MRI-compatible biopsy robot has been designed
and built [see Fig. 1(b)], using the symmetric acetal stepper
motors as actuators. The kinematic design consists of a 6-DOF
GROENHUIS AND STRAMIGIOLI: LASER-CUTTING PNEUMATICS 1609
Fig. 11. 8/6-way pneumatic distributor, design and implementations.
(a) Schematic layout of rotating rubber ring (red) and orifices (blue). S:
pressurized air supply; A, B, C, A,B
,C
: outputs to stepper motor. Di-
mensions not to scale. (b) Front view. (c) Top view of eight-fold manifold.
hexapod (also known as a Stewart platform), plus a single DOF
needle insertion mechanism on top of the platform as the end-
effector. The ball joints are all 3-D printed by the Stratasys
Objet Eden250 printer with a FullCure720 material, and the
other structural parts are mostly laser-cut from acetal. Except
for the needle itself, all parts of the biopsy robot are made of
plastic and, thus, (theoretically) MRI-compatible.
The robot is driven by a pneumatic distributor system as
shown in Fig. 11(c). It consists of an eight motorized 8/6-way
valves as described in the Section IV-B, and are manually
operated.
VI. MEASUREMENTS
The maximum switching frequency of the pneumatic cylin-
ders and stepper motors should be sufficiently high for the ap-
plication. This mainly depends on the working pressure, valve
switching speed and airflow, tube dimensions, and pneumatic
cylinder displacement volume. For pneumatic cylinders and
stepper motors, the net force is an important characteristic. To
learn about these parameters, various measurements were per-
formed which are described in this section.
A. Setup
The actuation force of pneumatic cylinders and stepper mo-
tors were measured with the test rig as shown in Fig. 12.An
Fig. 12. Test setup for force measurements of cylinders and stepper
motors.
acrylic single-acting cylinder with a cross-sectional bore area of
141 mm2was put under increasing and then decreasing pressure
from 0.5 to 6 bar, while the load on the rod was measured with
a spring scale. Three different seals were included in the test.
An acrylic stepper motor with a cross-sectional bore area of
78.4 mm2was also tested with the same setup. The teeth depth
was 6 mm and the pitch was 2 mm. The pressure varied from
1 to 4 bar (gauge pressure); for each pressure level the stepper
motor was operated very slowly, up to the point that the rack
could no longer overcome the spring scale force. The test was
then repeated with a different rack and set of pistons, now with
a pitch size of 4 mm.
The valve airflow was measured by filling a 1.35-L tank,
while the transient pressure was being recorded. The working
pressure varied from 1 to 6 bar. The maximum airflow at each
working pressure level was derived from the highest rate of
pressure change, and also compared with the airflow resulting
from depressurizing the air tank.
The maximum switching frequency of a pneumatic valve/
cylinder pair, connected with tubes of different widths (2, 4,
and 6.3 mm outer diameter, having 1.4, 2.5, and 4.3 mm in-
ner diameter, respectively) and different lengths (0.15, 2, 4, and
6 m), was evaluated by increasing the switching frequency, while
monitoring the behavior of a double-acting cylinder with dis-
placement volume of 0.51 mL. The highest switching frequency
at which the piston still consistently moved to either extreme
position, was recorded for each tube dimension, at different
pressure levels (1 to 6 bar).
B. Results and Discussion
1) Single-Acting Cylinder Force Measurements:
Fig. 13
shows the force as a function of applied pressure for the single-
acting cylinder, for three different seals. There is some hysteresis
caused by the friction of the seal, so the measured force during
increasing pressure (upward leg) is lower than during decreasing
pressure (downward leg).
We observe that there is a good linear fit for each leg. The
average slope ΔF/ΔPon the upward leg is 13.0 N/bar or
130 ×106N/Pa, and the average slope for the downward leg
is 14.6 N/bar or 146 ×106N/Pa. This is in good agreement
with the theory: ΔF/ΔP= 141 ×106N/Pa.
The offset force, which can be fully attributed to the seal
friction, is approximately 3 N for the 2-mm silicone seal, 4 N
for the 1.5-mm Trotec laserrubber seal, and 8 N for the 2.3-mm
Trotec laserrubber seal.
1610 IEEE/ASME TRANSACTIONS ON MECHATRONICS, VOL. 21, NO. 3, JUNE 2016
Fig. 13. Force measurements on single-acting cylinder.
Fig. 14. Force measurements on acrylic stepper motor, with two differ-
ent pitch sizes.
2) Acrylic Stepper Motor Force Measurements:
Fig. 14
shows the force measurements of the acrylic stepper mo-
tor. For a pitch size of 4 mm, all measurement data fit
on a straight line, crossing the horizontal axis at 0.09 bar
and having a slope of 8.1 N/bar or 81 ×106N/Pa. Again,
the horizontal offset (0.09 bar) can be attributed to the friction
of the silicone piston seal. The maximum force was found to be
24 N at 4.0-bar pressure.
The theoretical piston force, calculated from the bore cross-
sectional area, is F=78.4×106N/Pa. The mechanical ad-
vantage in the wedge is α=2D
P(see Fig. 7). For depth
D=6mm and pitch P=4mm, this ratio is 2·6
4=3,so
the theoretical rack force is F=3×78.4×106N/Pa =
235 N/Pa.
The efficiency of the piston-rack transfer can now be found
to be η=81
235 = 34%,so66% of the force is lost due to the
friction for this particular type of motor.
Whenasmallerpitchsizeisused(2mminsteadof4mm),
then the force becomes higher. The maximum force was now
found to be 30 N at a pressure of 4.0 bar, and ignoring the two
outliers, the force/pressure ratio was found to be 10 N/bar and
the efficiency η=100
470 = 21%.
TABLE I
VALVE AIRFLOW AT DIFFERENT WORKING PRESSURE LEVELS
pressure [bar] max. airflow [L/min]
1.0 8.0
2.0 13
3.0 18
4.0 22
5.0 27
6.0 32
Fig. 15. Maximum switching frequency of a double-acting cylinder for
various pressure levels and tube length/diameter sizes.
3) Valve Airflow Measurements:
The airflow was mea-
sured for different working pressures and the results are given in
Table I. The given airflow is the highest measured airflow, while
pressurizing a 1.35-L air tank. The airflow is mainly restricted
by the diameter of the orifices in the valve, which measure ap-
proximately 1 mm in diameter The effective orifice diameter is
about 0.8 mm. The depressurization airflow was also measured
and found to be approximately equal or slightly higher than the
pressurization airflow.
4) Switching Frequency Measurements:
See Fig. 15,for
the measurement results involving driving a double-acting pneu-
matic cylinder through the tubes of different sizes, using a
4/2-way valve, at different working pressure levels.
We can make the following observations:
1) Highest switching speeds are achieved using short and
thin tubes. The maximum valve switching speed (10 Hz)
is achieved when using the 2 mm ×0.15 m tube at least
2-bar working pressure, or the 2 mm ×2 m tube at 6-bar
working pressure.
2) At 1-bar working pressure, the piston only moves slowly,
and the switching speed is relatively low for all tube
dimensions.
3) Increasing pressure beyond 2 bar has little effect on 4 or
6.3-mm-thick tubes. The maximum valve airflow in com-
bination with the tube dimensions seems to be the limit-
ing factor here. For example, a 6.3 mm ×6 m tube has
a volume of 87 mL. To toggle the cylinder, the pressure
difference across the chambers must be at least 1 bar. At
GROENHUIS AND STRAMIGIOLI: LASER-CUTTING PNEUMATICS 1611
2-bar working pressure, it takes at least 1.587
217 s=0.60 s
to increase the pressure from zero to 1.5 bar. At 6-bar
working pressure, it takes at least 3.587
537 s=0.57 stoin-
crease the pressure from zero to 3.5 bar. Both figures cor-
respond well with the measured switching time of 0.75 s
or 1.3 Hz.
4) For 2-mm-thin tubes, the resistance in the tubes seems
to play a significant role as well because the measured
switching time is higher than the time required to pres-
surize the tube.
5) For 6-m-long tubes, the best thickness is 2 mm and the
maximum switching frequency is 4.5 Hz. Only when
the valve airflow is significantly increased, it would make
sense to use thicker tubes.
VII. CONCLUSION
We have described methods to systematically design and
produce valves, pneumatic cylinders, and stepper motors
using laser-cutting techniques. The problem of varying plate
thickness has been circumvented and the described methods to
make chambers airtight using screws and seals turn out to work
effectively.
The 4/3-way valve is capable of 5-Hz switching speeds (or
10 Hz for the 4/2-way valve). The valve allows working pres-
sures up to 6 bar, and has a maximum airflow of 22 L/min at
4 bar due to the 1 mm orifices in the valve.
The tested single-acting pneumatic piston can exert forces up
to about 70 N (at 6 bar), and the tested stepper motor exerts up
to 30 N of force (at 4 bar and 2-mm pitch) with 22% efficiency.
When 6-m-long pneumatic tubes are required, e.g., when
driving a MRI-compatible pneumatic robotic system with valves
placed outside the MRI room, then the tubes should be 2 mm in
diameter and the maximum switching frequency is then 4.5 Hz
(at 4 bar). To increase this frequency, the valve airflow should
be increased, by enlarging the orifices in the valve.
For researchers and hobbyists that have access to a laser
cutter, the described methods provide a novel way of designing
and producing low-cost custom pneumatic devices.
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Vincent Groenhuis received the B.Sc.
(Hons.) degree in computer science, and
the M.Sc.(Hons.) degree in embedded sys-
tems both from the University of Twente,
Enschede, The Netherlands, in 2006 and 2014,
respectively.
He is currently a Researcher at the Depart-
ment of Robotics and Mechatronics, University
of Twente, Enschede.
Stefano Stramigioli received the M.Sc. (Hons.)
degree (
cum laude
) from the University of
Bologna, Bologna, Italy, in 1992 and the Ph.D.
(Hons.) degree (
cum laude
) from the Delft Uni-
versity of Technology, Delft, The Netherlands, in
1998.
He is currently a Full Professor of advanced
robotics and the chair holder of the Robotics and
Mechatronics Group, University of Twente. He
has more than 200 publications including four
books. He is currently the Vice-President for Re-
search of euRobotics, the private part of the PPP with the EU known as
SPARC. He has been an Officer and AdCom Member for IEEE/RAS.
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