In his article titled “Shape-Shifting Things to Come,” Sridhar Kota, Herrick Professor of Engineering, describes devices built using elastic design as “a new engineering paradigm whose time has come.” Scientific American, a monthly journal nearing almost 169 years in print, has agreed. The magazine published Kota’s article on April 15th, 2014.
Seguing from his temporary fixation on windshield wipers during a rainy day two decades ago, Kota goes on in his article to explain the goal of his past and present research—developing devices that use as little parts as possible. More specifically, Kota develops devices using an engineering technique called elastic or compliant design.
Compliant design enforces both strength and flexibility that offers a more efficient alternative to otherwise rigid structures. Traditionally, these two characteristics are mutually exclusive. However, compliant design emphasizes the properties of flexibility, mainly for its ability to distribute weight evenly across a device.
Kota says that these properties can be applied in multiple models, which serve multiple functions. Such devices include MEMS, shape-adaptive aircraft wings, medical devices, and soft robots. Nature exemplifies these models in bird wings, tree branches, elephant trunks, and crab legs, for example. Each of these is able to bend and warp; yet, they remain strong.
According to Kota, marketing these products, such as his compliant windshield wiper, to industrial designers is the biggest obstacle in the road. A company called FlexSys, of which Kota is president, is in the process of developing software, which could provide tools that would allow potential buyers to explore the options elastic design offers.
Scientific American printed a follow up article on May 1st, 2014 that includes videos explaining Kota’s more recent developments of flexible machines. The article displays Kota’s one-piece polymer iris that distributes stress evenly throughout the device through a design featuring a “dilated peephole.” These devices, along with Kota’s morphing airplane wing flaps are being pioneered by FlexSys. Lastly, the article explains Kota’s design for a flexible motion amplifier, which is made up of one single part— no assembly required. The new design increases the two-micron output of the linear electrostatic motor by a factor of ten and is so far, foolproof.
In addition to his teaching at the University, Kota is also the leader of the Compliant Systems Design Laboratory, where much of the research for the development of these devices takes place.