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Design and Fabrication of a Three-Finger Prosthetic Hand using SMA

muscle wires
Filomena Simone, Alexander York, Stefan Seelecke
Department of Mechatronics, Saarland University, c/o ZeMA gGmbH, Gewerbepark Eschberger
Weg, Gebude 9, 66121, Saarbrcken, Germany


Bio-inspired hand-like gripper systems based on shape memory alloy (SMA) wire actuation have the potential to enable
a number of useful applications in, e.g., the biomedical field or industrial assembly systems. The inherent high energy
density makes SMA solutions a natural choice for systems with lightweight, low noise and high force requirements, such
as hand prostheses or robotic systems in a human/machine environment. The focus of this research is the development,
design and realization of a SMA-actuated prosthetic hand prototype with three fingers. The use of thin wires (100 m
diameter) allows for high cooling rates and therefore fast movement of each finger. Grouping several small wires
mechanically in parallel allows for high force actuation. To save space and to allow for a direct transmission of the
motion to each finger, the SMA wires are attached directly within each finger, across each phalanx. In this way, the
contraction of the wires will allow the movement of the fingers without the use of any additional gears. Within each
finger, two different bundles of wires are mounted: protagonist ones that create bending movement and the antagonist
ones that enable stretching of each phalanx. The resistance change in the SMA wires is measured during actuation, which
allows for monitoring of the wire stroke and potentially the gripping force without the use of additional sensors. The
hand is built with modern 3D-printing technologies and its performance while grasping objects of different size and
shape is experimentally investigated illustrating the usefulness of the actuator concept.

Keywords: SMA, bio-inspired gripper, prosthetic hand, embedded SMA, metal muscle.

A large number of hand prosthesis and high prehension industrial grippers have been designed and realized in recent
years. This has been driven by a desire to increase human manipulation capabilities both in industrial and in biomedical
fields. In particular, the design of these devices have a focus on several key elements such as low cost, light weight,
silent actuation, good humanmachine interface, and user-safe operation. Commercial and prototype devices designed
for rehabilitation are typically actuated by electrical motors. Prosthetic hands driven by electric motors are able to
produce high forces, perform at high actuation speeds and have great versatility 1. Important examples are the iLimb2,
realized by Touch Bionics in the 2009, the Bebionic3, produced by RSL Stepper in the 2011 and Michelangelo
Hand, invented by Otto Bock in 2012 4. These electric motor actuated devices have faced high user rejection rates
owing to the rigidity of the artificial hands, their low grasping stability, heavy weight, the noisy operation of actuators, as
well as the unnatural feel and robot-like motion of the fingers 5. For these reasons, research has been driven towards
finding alternative actuation methods. One such alternative is the use of using Shape Memory Alloys (SMA) wires as
actuators of new prosthetic hands. Shape Memory Alloys are materials that undergoes a phase transformation when
exposed to heat (Figure 1) 6. This active material can be easily integrated in mechanical structures without requiring
huge spaces and, above all, complex gearing mechanisms, favoring the abatement of production costs. These actuator
wires are typically heated via Joule heating from an applied current. For these reasons, various kinds of SMA based hand
prosthesis prototypes have been developed with different design structures and functionality. One design, which uses
nylon tendons, linked to SMA wires, to drive the motion of the hands fingers has been developed in 5 7 8. In this
configuration, the SMA wires are mounted inside the prototype arm and are linked to nylon tendons that run up through
the fingers. This results in a larger prosthetic hand device that requires the space of a hand and an arm. The idea to
embed the wires in the finger phalanx and in the hand palm has been developed in 9. In this work, the SMA wires are
connected to the phalanxs joints in order to induce a bending movement (fingers closing into a fist), while the finger
stretching movement (fingers extended) is obtained using nylon tendons linked to springs.
Figure 1. Diagram of Shape Memory Alloy phase change in response to heating, cooling and stressing

Analyzing these different designs of SMA driven prosthetic prototypes, it is possible to notice that their main common
disadvantage is to not be able to produce an adequate force at the tip of the prosthetic finger, or at any individual phalanx
within the fingers. They show, moreover, a low responsiveness due to the cooling/heating SMA process 9. To measure
the finger angular displacement, they use additional sensors that add to the weight and cost of the device.
In this paper, a new design of SMA driven 3-finger prosthetic hand is presented. First, the assembly procedure is
explained and then the functionality of the hand is presented. Tests are then performed using a FPGA based power
controller that utilizes resistance feedback to vary the power applied to each actuation wire and thus has the ability to
control the position/bending of the fingers. Experimental results are shown that reveal the self-sensing feature of Shape
Memory Alloy materials.

The human hand is a very complex system having 23 degrees of freedom (DOF). Since some of these DOF provide only
a structural function, these will be completely neglected in the engineering design proposed in this paper. Moreover,
since the main purpose of this work is the design of a bio-inspired hand-like gripper, in order to simplify the final
actuator structure, all the DOF not related to the gripping procedure, have been omitted from the design. The final
prototype structure is formed by three fingers actuated by SMA wires, where each finger has two movable phalanxes. In
order to give a simple and clear explanation of the gripper design procedure, the design of a single SMA actuated finger
will be presented first followed by the entire prototype realization.

2.1 SMA driven Finger design

For the design of the hand finger, a great care was taken to imitate the human finger structure. Its structure, designed in
Solidworks and shown in Figure 2 is divided in four parts. Each part is dimensioned according to the average human
fingers real phalanx, metacarpus and carpus dimensions. For functional purposes, a small part of the wrist has been
considered in the prototype total length. To interconnect the phalanxes, the distal interphalangeal and the proximal
interphalangeal joints have been designed as 1-DOF rotational joints. The actuator phalanxes have a hollow structure,
with the exterior part being formed by different rounded arc-shaped holes and only the frontal part consisting of
homogeneous material. This design choice has been introduced to ensure structural lightness and, at the same time,
endurance during the actuation, avoiding undesired structure deformation during bending of the finger.
The SMA finger structure has been designed in Solidworks and then printed in 3D with an Objet Connex 500 (Objet,
Ltd. Rohovot, Israel), using of Full Cure 720 10 material, enabling the realization of tiny and fragile parts with high
accuracy in relatively short time. After the printing process, the joints have to be assembled using small metal pins. The
result is a lightweight and strong skeleton.
Figure 2. Solidworks model of the SMA finger

The human finger movement is due to the contraction of muscles that lie in the arm. This muscles are linked to the finger
phalanxes thanks to robust tendons settled around the bones and anchored to them 11. Similar to the biological muscles,
SMA wires produce a powerful contraction when actuated. In order to save space and to avoid the contact between the
SMA wire and the hypothetical item to grasp, in the proposed design, the wires are routed inside the finger structure,
along each phalanx. In order to achieve this routing, some internal holes having the diameter of 0.5 mm are been
included in the 3D structure model. In order to guide the SMA wires through the finger, some Teflon tubes are glued in
the structure holes. This material is useful for its high temperature resistance and its small friction coefficient allowing
the SMA wire to smoothly slide within the tube. To allow the phalanxes bending and/or stretching, a system of
antagonist and protagonist wires have been introduced as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3. SMA actuated finger diagram that represents the SMA wires topology inside the structure and their wrapping
point. On the right, the front of the finger is shown and the two protagonist wires are represented in yellow and blue. On the
left, a schematic of the back of the finger is shown and the antagonist wire is represented in red.
In this configuration, the wires inserted into the front of the finger (protagonist wires) achieve the desired bending
movement (Figure 3, right), while a fully stretched finger position is reached by actuating the wires inserted into the back
of the finger (Figure 3, left). To allow for indipentent bending of the finger phalanxes, two different SMA wires are
enclosed in the frontal finger side. One wire is attached to the first upper phalanx and the other to the second lower
phalanx shown in Figure 3 (right).
The loaction of the wire with respect to its offset from the fingers center axis determines the amount of bending that can
be achieved for a given contraction of the wire. The wires can be routed in such a way that even a small contraction (in
the range of 3%) can create enough bending moment around the joint to produce full motion of the finger. To allow a fast
finger actuation and have a relatively fast SMA cooling time, a 100 m diameter Flexinol SMA wires (Dynalloy, Inc.
Tusten, CA) are used as metal muscle 12. The amount of force, or strength of the fingers grip, can be increased by
inserting multiple wires mechanically in parrallel. To acheieve higher forces, each wire is wrapped several times along
the finger structure as shown in Figure 3.

2.2 Three finger SMA gripper design

The SMA bio-inspired gripper consists of three SMA fingers, a two-component skin and a base. The entire structure is
modular to allow for quick part replacement if needed. The fingers do not have the same dimensions: the middle and the
index have the same structure, instead the thumb does not have the bottom phalanx, replicating, in this way, the human
thumb 11. Moreover, the thumb palm has a different shape in relation to the middle one.

Figure 4. Progression of SMA prosthetic gripper from the 3D model to the prototype.

Its joint, indeed, is slanting of 45 to the vertical direction in order to mimic the human thumb position when it is in
opposition position. This allows gripping of bigger items. The prototype skin is been designed in Solidworks in order to
be externally similar to the human palm and arm (for this reason, a fixed ring and little finger are also realized) and then
printed with the Objet Connex 500 (Objet, Ltd. Rohovot, Israel). To ensure a lightweight structure, the internal part of
the skin is completely hollow. Some anchor points are also added to fix of the fingers to the inside of the two skin parts
which are secured with some set screws. In addition, in the bottom part of the prototype, there is a small free space
containing electronics to drive and control the device. This allow the gripper to be mounted easily on any kind of robot
arm or to be used like a human prosthesis.


To test the bio-inspired SMA gripper functionality, a constant voltage source was used to supply current to each wire.
Since the wires embedded in the prototype structure have different lengths, and also different nominal resistances, they
each require different current amounts for actuation. Since we wanted to supply all of the wires with the same voltage
source, additional resistors were placed in series with the wires to adjust the nominal current to the appropriate value for
each wire.

Figure 5. Possible hand configurations when the middle finger bending movement is induced (top) and when the thumb
finger bending movement is performed (bottom). In both the situations, the initial position is represented, on the left, by the
fingers in their fully stretched position (only antagonist SMA wires activated). In the next frames, going from left to right,
switching the actuation form the antagonist wires to the protagonist ones in the middle/thumb finger, the bending of the first,
second and then both phalanxes is performed.
In the Figure 5 various achievable gripper configurations are shown. The top set of frames shows bending of the middle
finger, while the bottom frames show bending of the thumb for the same wire actuation sequence. Starting from the left
to the right of Figure 5, the actuator is shown with all fingers in the fully stretched position. In this configuration, only
the antagonist wires of the three fingers are actuated. In the second frame, the first phalanx bending for the thumb
(bottom) and for the middle finger (top) is displayed. In this case, the antagonist wires are no longer actuated and only
the protagonist SMA wires attached to the tip phalanx are powered. In the third frame, only the protagonist SMA wires
attached to the middle phalanx are actuated in order to perform the second phalanx bending while, in the last frame, full
finger bending is achieved actuating both of the protagonist SMA wires for both thumb and middle finger.


In this section, and power controller is presented capable of prescribing a set command power to each wire using a Pulse
Width Modulated (PWM) constant voltage source. Power control of SMA wires is desired because the power to the wire
directly relates to the SMA temperature 13, and the temperature of the wire determines its actuation behavior. When the
wire is heated, it contracts and has a change in resistance. If only a constant voltage source is used to heat the wire, the
change in resistance will cause a change in current, and thus a constant power is not achieved. The power controller
method measures the voltage and current in the wire and therefore can calculate the changing resistance of the wire and
adjust the duty cycle of the PWM to achieve a desired power. This method is similar to that used by Furst et. Al.14. The
change of resistance of Shape Memory Alloys while actuated can also be exploited for self-sensing 15 . In particular, it is
possible to correlate the finger angular displacement to the SMA wires resistance change and to the SMA wires input
power, avoiding the use of position sensors 14. In this section, some preliminary experiments have been conducted in
order to investigate the input power/ finger resistance change relation.
The power controller is built with a National Instruments (National Instruments Corporation, Austen, TX) cRIO-9074
real-time data acquisition system programmed with LabVIEW 2012. The voltage to the SMA wires are sent through an
NI-9472 module that works as a digital switch of up to 30 volts at 100us switch time. An NI-9229 module is used to
measure the voltage and an NI-9227 is used to measure the current. A 28 constant DC voltage source is used to supply
the NI-9472. During power control operation, an initial current and voltage reading is taken while the switch for each
wire is activated for 500us. This enables an initial calculation of nominal resistances and maximum powers for each
wire. The FPGA program then compares the desired power with the maximum power calculated and produces a PWM
duty cycle, which operates the NI-9472 switches, which will provide the desired power to each wire. The PWM is
programmed with a period of 10ms, and thus runs at 100Hz. For each cycle, the voltage and current are measured during
the on time of the PWM, and the new resistance and maximum power are calculated for the next cycle. During testing, a
host desktop computer running LabVIEW sends preset desired power profiles to the FPGA for each wire and also
collects voltage, current, resistance and power data throughout.

Figure 6. Power and resistance vs. time for the top phalanx (left) and antagonist (right) SMA wires of one finger.
Figure 6 shows the behavior of two of the SMA wire sets during actuation. Here, a particular power profile is given to
the SMA wires which commands the finger through a full cycle of motion which starts with the finger fully extended and
motions through full bending and then back to full extension. The antagonist wire, Figure 6 (right), starts fully actuated
in order to extend the finger. The changing resistance of the wire, also shown in Figure 7 (center) follows the motion of
the extending finger, which can also be seen in Figure 7 (bottom). The top protagonist wire, shown in Figure 6 (left) also
has a resistance change that follows the bending of the top phalanx. Figure 7 shows the full profile for each SMA wire
set in the finger. From Figure 7, it is possible to see that, even if the SMA wires are actuated in the same time, the
change of resistance in each wire is completely independent from the resistance change of the other wires. The position
of the finger can therefore be correlated to resistance values of each wire set as shown at the bottom of Figure 7.

Figure 7. Power input profiles and. Resistance vs Time for the three sets of SMA wires within one finger.
The focus of this work is to emulate the biological structure of the human hand and the natural muscle-tendon
arrangement in developing a new biomimetic prosthesis gripper. A prototype hand gripper system was presented that
utilizes SMA wires configured as antagonist and protagonist muscle pairings. This configuration allowed the hand
fingers to bend and extend similar to a real human finger. To ensure a strong and effective gripping, each wire was
wrapped several times along the finger phalanxes. A fast finger movement was enabled by the use of small diameter
SMA wires which can heat and cool quickly. The result is a versatile prototype having a lightweight, robust and low cost
structure, able to handle different size and shape items. The fabrication and basic testing of the prototype was presented
which showed the functionality of the device. Then, a power controller was developed that allowed the finger to follow
pre-set actuation profiles while simultaneously measuring the resistance change in the wires. The change in resistance
was directly correlated to the position of the finger which realizes the self-sensing capability of the SMA wires. This
SMA hand could be employed not only in biomedical applications, i.e. as human hand prosthesis, but also as an
industrial gripper. In future works, the prosthesis structure will be optimized using finite elements simulations.


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