MotorSkins: the metamaterial that is changing people’s lives through assisted movement
MotorSkins’ new reactive textiles aim “to build a more inclusive society where no one is left behind”
By integrating soft robotics into textiles, MotorSkins bridges the gap between science and design with a novel metamaterial based on fluidic circuits and material arrangements. Without requiring an external battery or motor, MotorSkins textiles tackle muscle weakness and disability through specialized active garments and revolutionize human-machine interaction through haptics and more intuitive interfaces.
The research behind this metamaterial uses bioinspired principles to make assistive technology more energy efficient, where the wearable soft robots are powered only by the user’s own movement. With an infinite world of applications, MotorSkins growing portfolio ranges from sports to medical, to home applications and beyond.
In this interview with DesignWanted, the MotorSkins team explained the design behind this metamaterial, its purpose, and its multiple uses, as well as possible future applications and collaborations within the scientific and commercial world.
What is MotorSkins? How did the journey for an innovation lab for soft-robotics begin?
“MotorSkins produces textile-based wearable robots for everyday use. The idea started in the context of the Cluster of Excellence Bild, Wissen, Gestaltung, at the Humboldt Universität zu-Berlin with Facundo’s master’s thesis.
The aim was to develop a novel assistive device based on research conducted on biological systems at the Max Planck Institute for Colloids and Interfaces, bridging the gap between science and design.
The innovation lies in making use of gravity and fluidics as the driving forces behind our system. We believe that our idea is simple but powerful and capable of changing the way we address assistive technologies and disabilities. Moreover, our design principles have the potential to extend into related areas, such as augmented capacities, assistance for the elderly, and rehabilitation.
Our team is a good mixture of science, engineering, business and user-centered design, with expertise in the fields of medical devices, material science, physical chemistry, and business development. The result is a holistic and novel approach to everyday problems.”
Why MotorSkins, why focus on textiles with embedded fluidics for human-machine interaction?
“We want to build a more inclusive society where no one is left behind.
People have fantasized about robots for a long time. Either as highly futuristic machines straight out of sci-fi, or more as daily companions that make your life easier. And while the latter seems like a more simple, achievable concept, the fact is we are not closer to having them. The main challenge is what we call the complexity gap.
There are already very sophisticated machines, such as exoskeletons, capable of helping people in different aspects of their lives but they remain highly complex and expensive, often focused on one specific task. More flexible, everyday applications would require a drastic increase in computing power and energy storage capabilities.
This is where the complexity gap comes in. Because of prohibitive prices and high complexity of the existing solutions and use cases, most people end up using very simple solutions in everyday life. In the field of orthotics and assistive technology in particular, the only affordable products for everyday use are mostly completely passive ones, such as compression garments, soft supports, canes, walkers and so on. They serve their purpose wonderfully, but they can only go so far.
With our reactive textiles, we can bridge this complexity gap. By focusing on the material itself, a textile-based metamaterial, we can create passive-active solutions for daily life such as specialized active garments and textile haptic interfaces.
Our vision is to build a lab for textile-based soft robotics for everyday use. That’s why we bring textiles to life.”
In simple words, what is the difference between MotorSkins and e-textiles?
“MotorSkins’ reactive textiles don’t need any embedded electronics. This is a big advantage because E-textiles can rarely withstand more than 20 wash cycles. They contain valuable non-renewable resources which are then just discarded or exported to developing countries as E-waste. In contrast, we are fully washable and more durable, which also reduces waste.
Our reactive textiles are also more energy-efficient. In fact, when applied to active garments, we can harvest around 10% of the user’s weight to power the function, resulting in a complete battery and motor-free product.”
We are curious to know what are the design references taken from nature to create your metamaterial? How does nature influence the design in terms of shape and functionality?
“Facundo’s Master’s thesis, supervised by Dr.-Ing. Khashayar Razghandi, was based on research carried out at the Max-Planck Institute for Colloids and Interfaces dealing with the movement and structure of plants.
There, they studied how some plants (seed capsules, in this case) were able to open with changes in humidity without the need for any energy input: they were already dead.
The science said the movement comes from the way in which different layers are arranged within the microscopic structure of the plant. As fibers are oriented in different directions, the humidity makes them swell along these dissimilar orientations, creating bends and twists. This is the key element that governs the macroscopic behavior of the plant.
The resulting design question was how to use these bioinspired principles to make assistive technology more energy efficient.
Nowadays, bioinspiration is still in our DNA. Our design process is inspired every day by the multi-faceted and holistic approach that nature takes in solving complex problems. In the same way, we take into account not just a single aspect, but a range of constraints that we have to address in order to create solutions based on our technology.
The focus of MotorSkins is on fabrics with embedded fluidics that can perform movement: these are our reactive textiles. In a similar way to plants, the movement of these fabric structures depends only on the arrangement of the different layers of materials and the design of the fluid circuits that they contain.
It’s what is called a metamaterial. The second key point is that thanks to a clever design of the fluid circuit, we can use our reactive textiles to produce wearable soft robots that are powered only by the user’s own walk.
We harvest the energy from each step, use it to perform movement and then release it again, resetting the circuit.
As part of a cross-industry technology platform, MotorSkins can be used by a variety of clients with different needs. Which users can benefit from it and in which way?
“MotorSkins has the potential to benefit a wide range of users, including those in the orthotics, automotive interiors, and health and well-being industries. What we have is a patent-pending cross-industry platform with the potential to touch almost every industry that uses textiles.
For example, our reactive textiles can be integrated into orthotics to provide dynamic mechanotherapy and compression products that can improve the health and well-being of the user. Our technology can also enhance the comfort and support provided to users while seated.
In the automotive industry, our pneumatic textile interfaces can improve the user experience by providing a cleaner and more intuitive interface with fewer distractions, improving safety on the road.
We are a B2B company and work closely with international groups and SMEs to integrate our technology into their products, creating new applications and enabling them to license our IP and know-how. This allows the companies to stay at the forefront of their field and to add a layer of functionality to their products which is tailored to their needs and those of their customers.
Depending on the case, we can also supply the active component based on our reactive textiles, as MotorSkins becomes the active heart of the new product.”
Your project has received many awards since its beginning and now has a partnership with ITL-studio. What should we expect to see next?
“Currently we have several ongoing partnerships with different companies at the European and worldwide levels. ITL Studio, as well as ComSensus, are great examples of European collaborations we have established to bring new ideas to life and push our technology forward.
In the long term, we want to integrate a new level of control and functionality into the material, resulting in overall better features for the final user.
We are also currently part of the latest cohort of PlugandPlay Japan and we are looking to establish further collaborations to bring our technology into new products in the medical, well-being and interaction fields.
Our latest event was the EBAN Impact Summit in Barcelona (16-17 Feb. 2023), where we unveiled our smart cooling vest, developed for astronaut training, which can be applied for everyday use in the context of climate change.”