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48 Int. J. Mechatronics and Automation, Vol. 3, No.

1, 2013

A reconfigurable modular fixture design for


Gelareh Namdar*, Chen Liu, James K. Mills and

Beno Benhabib
Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering,
University of Toronto,
Toronto, Ontario, M5S 3G8, Canada
*Corresponding author

Abstract: A reconfigurable, intelligent modular fixture with embedded sensing capabilities is

critical to improving the adaptability and efficiency of meso-milling machines for yielding
micro-size features. The primary goals in designing such a fixture are: 1) to locate a large group
of similar workpieces with minimal setup changes; 2) to sense the location of a workpiece placed
on the fixture; 3) to provide feedback in regard to ongoing proper workholding of a workpiece
during machining. We consider two specific issues to address these goals. First, designing a set of
modular fixture components with desired stiffness and accuracy. Second, employing miniaturised
and accurate embedded sensors.

Keywords: meso-milling; reconfigurable intelligent fixtures; embedded sensors.

Reference to this paper should be made as follows: Namdar, G., Liu, C., Mills, J.K. and
Benhabib, B. (2013) ‘A reconfigurable modular fixture design for meso-milling’, Int. J.
Mechatronics and Automation, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp.48–57.

Biographical notes: Gelareh Namdar received her Master’s in Mechanical Engineering from the
University of Toronto. Her research focused on conceptual design of reconfigurable, intelligent
fixtures with embedded sensors for meso-milling at the Computer Integrated Manufacturing
Laboratory. She is currently working in the automotive industry with a focus on problem solving
and risk management.

Chen Liu graduated from Mechanical Engineering from the University of Toronto in 2010 with
BASc degree. From 2010 to 2011, her research focused on modular fixture designs at the
Computer Integrated Manufacturing Laboratory. Her current research is focused on deep
learning, pattern recognition and computer vision.

James K. Mills is with the Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Toronto. His
recent research interests include: control of multi-robots, design and control of high speed
machines, 3D MEMS robotic assembly and micro-scale biological task automation. He has
published over 400 papers and supervised over 60 Masters and PhD students and a number of
Post-Doctoral Fellows and research engineers. He has been an Invited Visiting Professor at the
Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics in Bangalore, India, a Visiting Professor at the
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Chinese University of Hong Kong and the
City University, Hong Kong.

Beno Benhabib is a Professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at the University of

Toronto since 1986. He is also cross-appointed to the Institute of Biomedical and Biomaterials
Engineering at the University of Toronto. His research interests include autonomous systems,
design and mathematical analysis of modular and multi-arm robots; machine vision; robotic
sensors; supervisory control of manufacturing systems; and computer aided design of machine

1 Introduction devices, portable electronics, and precision tools has

increased (Luo et al., 2005). Meso-scale parts (0.5 to 5 mm
During the past decade, the global demand for meso-scale
in size) are expected to have sub-micron accuracies. A
production, in applications such as in-vivo biomedical

Copyright © 2013 Inderscience Enterprises Ltd.

A reconfigurable modular fixture design for meso-milling 49

fixturing system for meso-milling would, thus, require an sensors. The component/baseplate interface was also
accuracy level an order of magnitude better than that of the standardised.
machine itself. Currently, most of the commercial meso-milling
Currently, most commercial meso-milling systems use systems use standardised, off-the-shelf fixture devices. This
either simple locating/clamping systems or standard approach can satisfy the basic functional requirements of a
dedicated fixture devices. This approach can satisfy the meso-milling machine and reduce the fabrication cost of the
basic functional requirements of a meso-milling machine. specialised fixture. However, having a standardised system
However, using dedicated fixtures leads to several would lead to several limitations on the shape of the
limitations, including prohibitive cost of fixtures and workpiece, and would reduce the usage efficiency and
long lead-times, especially for one-of-a-kind and small machinability of the workpieces.
batch-sized parts, and lack of intelligence in terms of Although meso-milling machines focus on different
sensing. The main motivation behind this research is, thus, scales of components compared to the conventional milling
to design a reconfigurable fixture with embedded sensors machines, their fixturing principles are similar. As
that improves the adaptability and efficiency of mentioned above, commercialised micro-milling systems,
meso-milling machines through workholding modularity. such as the one by Makino, Kern and Microlution have
Thus, it is desirable that the proposed fixturing system can integrated the standard kinematic coupling base with tool
locate the workpieces rapidly, repeatably, and with chuck as a workholding system for their micro-milling
sufficient accuracy. machines. This method is also a common approach adopted
The modularity, stiffness as well as load capacity of by meso-milling researchers in academia. Honegger et al.
such fixtures are important characteristics since they cause (2006) describe a fixturing system used in the microfactory
limitations on the locating accuracy and suitability for developed in UIUC as a pallet system that is incorporated
different parts. Thus, there is an immediate need for the with a kinematic coupling base. Sensors are placed
development of intelligent, meso-scale, modular fixtures. In underneath the base to perform direct measuring during
this work, we aim to present a conceptual design of a new operations.
intelligent reconfigurable fixturing system incorporated with In order to innovate upon the state-of-the-art technology
smart-material sensors from both mechanical design and and address one of the immediate needs of meso-scale
sensor design perspectives. machining, a new intelligent reconfigurable fixturing system
The concept of the fixture modularity was first incorporated with smart-material sensors is presented
developed in the 1960s for the machine-tool manufacturing herein. The work will be presented with respect to two
industry. These fixtures consisted of kits of standard aspects of our research in the area:
modular components (i.e., locators, V-blocks, and clamps)
1 mechanical design
assembled and reconfigured manually on a baseplate in
order to locate and hold different sizes of workpiece, mostly 2 sensor design.
for one-of-a-kind and small batch production. There was no
One can note that, with respect to the first aspect, our goal
feedback information provided (Gallien and Hammer,
has been to first establish the basic locating units and, thus,
1984). The available non-programmable fixtures consisted
clamp design at the meso-scale level is not within the scope
of the passive modular components, designed to be
of this paper. We consider our proposed fixturing system as
manually/automatically (i.e., by a robot) configured on a
an intelligent one since it incorporates the basic
T-slot or a hole-type baseplate.
building-block of intelligence in terms of sensing and
In 1986, Colbert et al. developed an automatic modular
closed-loop feedback control as previously discussed in
fixturing system including a baseplate, tool point units, and
Chan et al. (1990). Furthermore, the system is integrated
clamps, for the machining of prismatic workpieces (Colbert
with in-house designed hardware (circuitry for sensors) and
et al., 1986; Colbert, 1985). The fixture was capable of
control software.
being loaded and unloaded by a robot and also sense the
existence of the workpiece for initiating an automatic
clamping sequence and then releasing the workpiece after it
2 Conceptual mechanical design
is machined. The tool point unit was equipped with a
microswitch activated by the motion of the tool point when Traditional dowel-based system is selected as the
in contact with the workpiece. (hole-based) baseplate concept for the meso-milling
In 1989, Chan et al. (1990) developed a modular workholding system, considering the following primary
programmable fixturing system for the automatic assembly requirements for the proposed design:
of regular-sized parts including a horizontal locator, a
• Fixture components shall assist to locate workpieces
variable-height vertical locator, a variable-wide V-block, a
and immobilise workpieces.
universal clamp, and a hole-type baseplate. All the
components were flexible in the sense that they could be • The fixture shall be durable, resist shock and wear
used for workpieces with different sizes and geometries. All forces introduced during loading, locating and
fixture components were also embedded with optical machining.
• Repeatability of locating shall be achieved at all times.
50 G. Namdar et al.

• The fixture shall tolerate small variations in tolerances piezoresistive material is levelled higher than the structural
of workpieces and not negatively affect the machining material (Figure 2). When the workpiece is placed on top of
of the workpiece. the rest button, its weight will cause a compression in the
piezoresistive material until the workpiece is fully supported
One can note that, general specifications for the by the metal structure.
meso-milling fixturing system with embedded sensors In order to locate cylindrical or curved-surface
would also include the following: workpieces, V-blocks can be employed. In this work, half
• the fixture should be able to fix workpieces with 3D V-blocks are proposed, instead of the conventional full
sculpted surfaces V-blocks, to enhance manufacturability. Namely, two half
V-blocks can be configured for the same purpose as that of
• the workpiece dimensions could be in the range of one full V-block, but with more flexibility. We can mix and
0.5 mm to 5 mm match half V-blocks in difference sizes to satisfy the
workpiece shape and fixture requirements. Also in practice
• the positioning accuracy could be less than 0.1 micron at meso-scale, a full V-block is challenging to manufacture
with built-in sensors. Thus, half-V-block was selected as the
• the fixture components should be reconfigurable by
design concept. The design and sensing mechanism of the
robot with sensors embedded to detect the presence of
half-V-block, similar to that of the rest button, are shown in
Figure 3. Slots are machined on the slanted surface of the
Based on the above requirement, the proposed system half-V-blocks. Metal paint and insulating material can be
includes: side locators, rest buttons, and V-blocks. Clamps coated to complete the circuitry for the sensor, and
are omitted in this initial attempt. piezoresistive materials can be moulded and sit in the slots
to form contact with electrodes. Then, when the cylindrical
2.1 Locators workpiece is sitting in the fixture, a clamp can be utilised to
secure it.
The proposed locator design is presented in Figure 1. The
metal inner core uses alloy steel, which is partially coated
with the insulating material and electrode. A polymeric Figure 2 Design of rest button
sensor (piezoresistive) material is moulded around the neck
area of the structural component. The circumference of the
piezoresistive sensor is naturally larger than the metal
structure core. When the workpiece is placed against the
locator, piezoresistive material is compressed. Namely, the
workpiece would be pushed against the piezoresistive
material until it is stopped by the structural core. The
structural core is a bone-shaped metal pillar, which is coated
with electrode and insulating material. The piezoresistive
sensor is moulded around the circumference of the pillar.
The compressed piezoresistive sensor can, thus, be used for
detecting the presence and proper locating of the workpiece,
which will be further detailed in Section 4. Figure 3 Design of V-block

Figure 1 Design of side locator

Similar principles were applied to the design of the rest

button (Figure 2). Metal can be used as the structural 2.2 Baseplate and system assembly
component. Insulating material can be applied onto the top The baseplate, as shown in Figure 4, consists of two
surface of the rest button. Then, a layer of metal paint (e.g., primary parts: a hole-based plate and a sensory/circuit plate.
silver epoxy) can be applied and serve as an electrode. A The sensory/circuit plate is mounted underneath the
shallow slot is fabricated at the surface of the rest button hole-based plate. When fixture components are inserted into
and the piezoresistive polymer is moulded in. The the hole-based plate, corresponding sensors would be
A reconfigurable modular fixture design for meso-milling 51

activated and send a signal to the controller of the fixturing 3 Mechanical-behaviour analysis
system. Also, upon the insertion of components, electrical
connections of the sensors on the associated locators and 3.1 Fatigue analysis
rest buttons are established (Figure 5). The left grey lines In order to estimate the theoretical endurance limits and the
represent the simple circuitry on the sensor/circuit plate. S – N curve, the following analysis was performed. For
An example of the overall 3-2-1 locating principle is alloy steels, average ultimate tensile strength is estimated at
shown in Figure 6. The 3-2-1 is the basic locating principle 2,200 MPa. An approximate relationship between minimum
used in traditional fixtures. It represents the number of tensile strength Sut and endurance limit (Se: the cyclic
locating points in 3D. The ‘3’ refers to locating a plane (on stress that a specimen can withstand before failure) can,
the workpiece) with three locators to prevent translation in thus, be stated by Se′ = 0.5 Sut , for Sut < 1,400 MPa, and
one direction and rotation around two axes (for a total of Se′ = 700 MPa, for Sut ≥ 1,400 MPa. With Sut of the selected
three degrees of freedom). The ‘2’ refers to locating the
material being greater than 1,400 MPa, herein, Se′ is
adjacent orthogonal plane with two locators, constraining
one additional rotation and one additional translation equivalent to 700 MPa. Correction factors are needed to
direction (for a total of two degrees of freedom). The ‘1’ account for the physical differences between the test
refers to locating the third adjacent orthogonal plane that specimen and also testing conditions. Using equation (1),
constrains the last translational direction (i.e., the sixth the corrected endurance limit can be calculated as:
degree of freedom). Clamps are used to remove the Se = Cload Csize Csurf Ctemp Creliab Se′ (1)
remaining degrees of freedom.
where Cload is the correction factor for loading effect, Csize is
Figure 4 Assembly of fixturing system 1 (see online version the correction for size effect, Csurf is the correction factor for
for colours) surface effect, Ctemp is the correction factor for temperature
effect, and Creliab is the correction factor for the reliability
factor. The load factor is defined as Cload = 1 for bending or
torsion, and Cload = 0.7 for axial loading or shear. Specimens
in fatigue test are usually around 8 mm in diameter. If the
diameter of the specimen is greater than 8 mm, then, Csize is
needed to account for the fact that larger parts would fail at
the lower stresses due to the higher suggested different
values for the size factor (Norton, 2006). The equivalent
Figure 5 Assembly of fixturing system 2 diameter can be calculated based on equation (2) for the net
area since 95% of the stresses are distributed across the 95%
area (Norton, 2006):
⎡ d 2 − (0.95d ) 2 ⎤
A95 = π ⎢ ⎥⎦ = 0.0766d
⎣ 4
Thus, the equivalent diameter is:

d equiv = (3)
In general, the rougher the surface finish is the lower the
fatigue strength the specimen would have. Juvinall (1967)
has reported the common Csurf factors for steels. The
following relationship was suggested by Shigley and
Mischke (1989):
Figure 6 Example sculptured-workpiece fixturing
Csurf ≅ A ( Sutb ) , if Csurf > 1.0, set Csurf = 1.0 (4)

where A and b are determined from a table provided in

(Norton, 2006).
Most of the fatigue tests are done at room temperature.
High temperatures would significantly reduce the
fatigue strength: for 450°C < T ≤ 550°C, Ctemp = 1 – 0.0058
(T – 450) (Norton, 2006). Similarly, based on the
assumption made by Haugen and Wirsching (1975), the
standard deviation of endurance strengths of steel are
usually within 8% of their mean values. Thus, the Creliab can
be obtained from Table 1. Considering a reliability of
52 G. Namdar et al.

99.99%, Creliab would be 0.702, and the endurance limits for from this analysis. When considering the life-time of a
side locator, and rest button of the proposed material under designed structure, wear is also another important factor.
different loading conditions would be as shown in Table 2. The structural core wear can be effectively prevented by
Generally, the interest range of high-cycle-frequency regime well-established coating technologies that are commercially
is from 103 to 106 and further. The material strength at 103 available. The wear of sensor materials is hard to determine
cycles is labelled as Sm, and can be calculated as follows: for since they are relatively new. In general, to maintain the
bending and torsion, Sm = 0.9 Sut, and, for axial loading and accuracy of high precision meso-scale machining, the
shear: Sm = 0.75 Sut. The resultant Sm for each case is locating components should be inspected more often than
summarised in Table 3 for different loading cases of side remove the components of a macro-scale fixture.
locators and rest buttons.
Figure 7 S-N diagram for the locators under different loading
Table 1 Reliability factors for Sd = 0.08μ conditions (see online version for colours)

Reliability % Creliab
50 1.000
90 0.897
99 0.814
99.9 0.753
99.99 0.702
99.999 0.659

Table 2 Calculated endurances for side locator and rest button

Loading condition Endurance limit (MPa)

Side locator – shear 1.000 3.2 Finite-element analysis
Side locator – bending/torsion 288.3
Finite-element analysis (FEA) was conducted for the side
Rest button – shear/axial loading 201.8 locator, rest button, and V-block under estimated largest
static load of 30 N. The displacement and stress of the
Table 3 Material strength for side locator and rest button largest and smallest components are plotted and are shown
in Table 4.
Loading condition Material strength (MPa)
The analysis shows that the deflection of components
Side locator – shear 1,650 are sufficiently small to meet the requirements of the
Side locator – bending/torsion 1,980 machining precision. Upon the application of static
maximum load to the components, the generated stresses are
Rest button – shear/axial loading 1,650
compared to the S – N curve, after 103 – 106 cycles (varies
For estimating the S – N diagram on a log-log plot, a linear for different components), where the alloy steel structure
behaviour is estimated in the range 103 cycles to 106 cycles does not experience failure. Based on this analysis, AISI
and the corrected Se is used, where: M42 molybdenum steel was chosen as the specific material
for fixture component fabrication. This material has high
S(N ) = a ( N b ) (5) impact toughness, abrasion resistance, hardness, and fine
grain structure. We selected three sets of randomly chosen
or locating positions on the baseplate for locators, rest button
Log ( S ( N ) ) = log(a ) + b log( N ) (6) and half-V-block, in order to analyse the baseplate under
different conditions (located at middle and edge of the
Following above steps we obtain: baseplate). The displacement and corresponding von Misses
stress values are summarised in Table 5. AISI 1095 is
1 ⎛S ⎞
b= log ⎜ m ⎟ (7) proposed as the material for the baseplate due to its high
z ⎝ Se ⎠ abrasion resistance and hardness.
where z = log (N1) – log (N2); for (N1 = 103, N2 = 106)
3.3 Modal analysis
log(a) = log ( Sm ) − b log ( N1 ) = log ( Sm ) − 3b (8)
Modal analyses were performed for the alloy steel material
The estimated S – N curves for different loading conditions used in structural components. Two sets of boundary
of the side locator and rest button are shown in Figure 7. dimensions were studied and the resultant first three natural
One can note that the configuration of the V-block makes it frequencies are listed in Tables 6 and 7, are listed
hard to construct and S – N curve, therefore, it is exempted respectively.
A reconfigurable modular fixture design for meso-milling 53

Table 4 Displacement and stress of the largest and smallest components

Stress Von Misses stress Displacement Displacement

Von Misses
(pressure, Pa) (shear, Pa) (pressure, mm) (shear, mm)
Smallest side locator 0.314 × 1010 N/A 1.081 × 10–3 N/A
Largest side locator 0.423 × 10 N/A 0.315 × 10–3 N/A
9 9 –3
Smallest rest button 0.516 × 10 0.152 × 10 0.232 × 10 0.421 × 10–5
Largest rest button 0.521 × 109 0.164 × 109 0.679 × 10–3 0.805 × 10–5
9 –5
Smallest half-V-block 0.157 × 10 N/A 0.804 × 10 N/A
8 –5
Largest half-V-block 0.110 × 10 N/A 0.265 × 10 N/A

Table 5 Displacement and corresponding von Misses stress (CNT), etc.] serve as possible materials for strain-sensing
values for the baseplate for three fixture applications. CNT-PDMS is also adapted in our work as a
second option for the sensing part.
Displacement (mm) Stress (Pa) As abovementioned, the metal cores for locating
–3 components are prepared with an insulating material. A
Configuration 1 0.562 × 10 0.517 × 108
polymeric sensor (piezoresistive) material is then moulded
Configuration 2 0.492 × 10–3 0.558 × 108 around/on-top of the structural components. Levelled sensor
Configuration 3 0.551 × 10 0.440 × 108 materials are subjected to pressure due to workpiece
presence. When the workpiece is stopped by the structural
Table 6 First three natural frequencies for smallest steel component and a threshold is reached, a response is
components generated and communicated through the circuitry to the
central controller.
1st frequency 2nd frequency 3rd frequency
Similarly, for the rest buttons and the V-block, an array
(Hz) (Hz) (Hz)
of planar micro piezoresistive sensors with micro-Newton
Smallest 1,569.6 1,571.9 3,175.6 sensitivity was designed in order to sense the location of the
fixture components. In this configuration, the location of
Smallest 4,509.2 4,528.0 6,429.1 component insertion can be also verified, which makes the
rest button
sensor as a multi-task sensor. The main advantage of this
Smallest 1,421.2 1,451.3 2,451.7 approach is that the total cost of fabricating the fixture
V-block would be significantly less compared to fabricating
individual micro-moulded sensors, as one array of sensors is
Table 7 First three natural frequencies largest steel used for all the underneath component sets.
components Tactile sensor arrays have been developed in the past
1st frequency 2nd frequency 3rd frequency using silver (Ag) fillers in the application of biological
(Hz) (Hz) (Hz) sensing and biomedical diagnosis. Such a tactile sensor
using PDMS matrix was presented in Cong and Pan (2008,
Largest 97.175 97.194 229.73
locator 2009) with 10 mN resolution. Other works focusing on
sensor and MEMS fabrication were also reported in Liu
Largest 995.81 967.28 987.07
rest button
(2007) for the development of artificial hair cell (AHC)
sensor arrays. AHC sensors are tactile sensors inspired by
Largest 97.175 97.194 229.73
the mechanism of how natural hair cells and neurons
interact with each other. The sensor array uses carbon
impregnated PMC121 polyurethane as the active sensing
polymer and can be used as flow and vibration sensor.
4 Sensing Engel et al. also worked on the development of a MEMS
Sensors enhance the performance, intelligence, and sensor based on AHC sensors (Engel et al., 2005). The
reprogrammability of a fixture, as well as its communication carbon content achieved 30 weight percent and the off-axis
with a controller. Generally, sensing in fixture is required to sensitive ratio for the sensors were 6.1 on average. Later,
validate the configuration of the locating components, and the same research group also developed sensors using
detect the workpiece presence. MWCNT and PDMS composites based on capacitive theory
Piezoresistive polymeric materials were selected as the in Lu et al. (2007b). Micro-pillars were created by using
sensing elements in our work. They produce direct, inherent moulding techniques on MWCNT-PDMS composites and
physical responses to pressure. Conductive polymer served the purpose of capacitors of the sensor. It was shown
nanocomposites, consisting of an elastomer matrix (e.g., that MWCNT has better sensitivity than do carbon-based
polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS), parylene, polyimide, etc.) sensors.
and conductive fillers [such as metal, carbon nanotubes
54 G. Namdar et al.

As presented in Lu et al. (2007a), an array of tactile A rectangular mould (23 × 15mm2 with two different
sensors with a carbon polydimethylsiloxane (CPDMS) thicknesses: 1 and 2 mm) was used for the preparation of
composite was produced. The dimensions of each active samples for compressive piezoresistance characterisations.
piezoresistor were 50 μm × 30 μm × 8 μm with a After weighing, mixing and degassing, the liquid
mushroom-shaped electrode. When the pressure was applied CNT-PDMS was poured into the mould. Then, the material
to the active piezoresistor, the carbon black particles would was compression moulded in a Carver heated press
be dispersed and result in changing the resistance. The array (model 4386, Carver Inc, Wabash IN) at 90°C at a pressure
showed a minimum detectable resistance change when force of 0.5 metric tons for cross-linking process to occur.
was greater than 50 μN. Using the aforementioned idea, After preparing the samples, the piezoresistive
Lu’s design was adapted in our work. In order to obtain behaviour of CNT-PDMS composites was observed through
improvement over the original design, it was desirable to the use of a high precision multi-metre (Model 2400,
change the composite material from CPDMS to CNTPDMS Keithley Instruments Inc.) coupled with a universal testing
since the average gauge factor of CNT-PDMS is twice as system (Model 5848, Instron). The schematic of the
CPDMS (Lu et al., 2007b). In addition, in order to reduce measurement system for compressive piezoresistance
the fabrication complexity, the mushroom electrode was measurement is shown in Figure 8.
removed. Note that since the smallest detectable force is The sheet samples for compressive piezoresistance
50 μN, if a workpiece weight is less than 50 μN clamps characterisation were placed between two copper electrodes
forces can be used to trigger the sensor detection. In which were insulated on the opposite side, and sandwiched
addition, a larger material stalk (to increase the weight) can between the compression plates as shown in Figure 8 and
be used to achieve the detectable required force (machining Figure 9. The test performed consisted of compressing the
the small part on the bigger stalk and break it off). plates by conducting uni-axial compressive piezoresistance
characterisation at an increment of 1 N until 10 N, then,
with the increment level of 10 N up to 100 N. From 100 N
5 Experiments onward, the increment level changed until compression
reached 400 N for examining the piezoresistance
5.1 Preparation hypothesis.
CNTs-PDMS is a relatively new composite material
and related experimental and theoretical fundamentals Figure 8 Schematic of the measurements (see online version
are not yet well-established. Thus, some preliminary for colours)
characterisations for the composites were required before
proceeding with sensor design. PDMS is non-conductive.
The conductive behaviour of such composites is fully
dependent on the CNTs filler and the interaction between
CNTs within the PDMS matrix (to create conductive
network), related to the weight ratio of the CNTs present in
the composite, as well as the thickness (distance from one
measurement surface to another) of the sample material.
The brand of the PDMS in our work was Sylgard 184, Figure 9 Mechanical testing machine and sample
manufactured by Dow Corning Chemicals (Midland, MI). characterisation setup (see online version for colours)
This PDMS has a density of 1.03 g/cm3, electrical
conductivity of 8.3 × 10–15 S/cm and viscosity of 3,900 cp.
Multi-wall carbon nanotubes (MWCNT) used in
the experiments were supplied by CheapTubes Inc.
(Brattleboro, VT). The MWCNTs have a reported diameter
between 30-50 nm, an average length of 10–30 μm and a
purity level of > 95 wt.%. The MWCNTs also have an
electrical conductivity > 102 S/cm and a specific surface
area > 110 m2/g. Sylgard 184 silicone elastomer base and
curing agent were mixed with a 10:1 weight ratio initially.
Then, the MWCNT were added and mixed mechanically to
reach the desired filler concentration (8, 12, and 16 wt.%).

5.2 Sensor characterisation

The CNT-PDMS was placed in a vacuum chamber for Non-linear behaviour was observed during testing, and the
30 min at 25 mm Hg in order to remove air bubbles best performance range of CNT-PDMS composites was
introduced during the mixing process. Sample composites limited to less than 100 N, which is more than sufficient for
were prepared using compression moulding technique. the application at hand. The resistance range of the flat
8 wt.% samples was in the order of Kilo-ohm (Figure 10),
A reconfigurable modular fixture design for meso-milling 55

the resistance of the 12 wt.% flat sample was in the order of factor. Table 8 summarises the ratio of change in resistance
Ohm (Figure 11), and the resistance of the 16 wt.% flat per N of CNT-PDMS samples with different CNT weight
sample was in the order of Mili-ohm (Figure 12). ratios.

Figure 10 Resistance versus compressive forces for Table 8 Summary of ratios of change in resistance per N of
CNTs-PDMS 8 wt% of CNTs (see online CNT-PDMS
version for colours)
Samples’ specifications (wt.%) Ratios of ΔRvs. F (Ω/N)
8 68,600
12 (thick) 2.24
12 (thin) 0.136
16 0.1634

5.3 Fabrication of fixture components and testing

As previously mentioned, for the moulded sensors, the
metal inner core is used as the structural component.
Insulating material and electrode are coated on the metal
core. Then, a polymeric sensor (piezoresistive) material is
Figure 11 Resistance versus compressive forces for moulded around/on-top of the structural component. The
CNTs-PDMS 12 wt% of CNTs (see online sensor can be considered as a binary switch, activated by the
version for colours) pressure produced by the workpiece weight, or clamping
force. Prototypes of large-scale side locators were produced
using the designed injection moulding type of mould,
Figure 13. Large-scale samples had dimensions of 7 mm in
structural diameter, 8 mm in diameter with sensor material
and total height of 14.1 mm. A second set of smaller
large-scale samples had dimensions of 4.74 mm in structural
diameter, 5 mm in diameter with sensor material and total
height of 12.1 mm. They all contained 12 wt.% CNTs
mixed mechanically with 2 hrs of degassing.
The side locators were placed into test fixtures for
testing, Figure 14. The testing system consisted of three
pockets that could fit three different sizes of locators. The
middle section of the locator (with the active sensing
material) is suspended in air. This ensures that the sensor is
Figure 12 Resistance versus compressive forces for
CNTs-PDMS 16 wt% of CNTs (see online not pre-stressed and, thus, not affecting the testing results.
version for colours) The testing equipment included a digital multi-metre
(Fluke 8050A) and a mechanical testing machine (Instron
8511.20), Figure 15. A test probe clamped at the top gripper
of the mechanical testing machine. When the testing head
went down, the testing probe created a uniform line contact
with the sensor area of the locator prototype to simulate the
actual fixturing process. The resistance versus force graph is
shown in Figure 16.

Figure 13 Large-scale and small-scale locators (see online

version for colours)

From practical point of view, the 12 wt.% CNTs-PDMS

composite was chosen to be the best candidate for this
project (for both moulded and planar sensors). It has high
sensitivity (more than that of 8 wt.%), relatively easy to
mould (lower viscosity than that of 16 wt.%, also easy to
find compatible hardware), and relatively good gauge
56 G. Namdar et al.

Figure 14 Test fixture with insertions (see online version exists no established mathematical model that characterises
for colours) the exact change of resistance. Also, since the area is
relatively new and not fully explored, no standard recipes
are available. Depending on the preparation process,
sensitivity varies.
Upon the validation by experiments, we developed the
circuitry and control logic for the system. Since the
designed sensor is used to determine the placement of
sensor, we only need to determine the binary state of the
sensor and notify the controller. Thus, a comparator would
be appropriate and sufficient. With controlled on/off signals,
Figure 15 Setup of the testing system (see online version the fixturing system can communicate with the computer.
for colours)

6 Conclusions
A novel meso-scale modular fixturing system is presented
herein at the conceptual level. Modularity, intelligence,
reconfigurability, rigidity, accuracy and scale requirements
were all addressed and verified. These characteristics allow
the system to have superior features in comparison to
existing off-the-shelf fixtures for meso-milling.
Dowel-based modular fixturing principle was used. The
Figure 16 Resistance versus forces diagram of (large-scale) proposed reconfigurable system consists of four basic
large locator (see online version for colours) components: baseplate, side locator, rest button, and half
V-block. All the components were tested for three sets of
dimensions to satisfy the requirement of being able to
fixture workpieces in the range of 0.5 to 5 mm.
CNT-PDMS composite piezoresistive material was
selected as the sensing material due to ease of
implementation. Characterisation tests were carried out for
the CNT-PDMS samples produced in our lab. The results
align with existing theories. It was determined that the
thinner the sample is the more sensitive the material would
be, as well as having less resistance. The higher the weight
percentage of CNT content is the better conductivity it has.
Furthermore, the resistance decreases with the applied force.
Figure 17 Resistance versus forces diagram of (large-scale) The research goals were achieved by selecting a
small locator (see online version for colours) dowel-based fixture concept so that the design is able to
locate and immobilise the 3D workpiece. FEA was
performed on components that are smaller than 5 mm in
size with two sets of dimensions to satisfy the requirements
of fixture workpiece range from 0.5 to 5 mm as well as
accuracy. Experiments on sensor materials were prototyped
to ensure that the CNTs-PDMS works outside the nanoscale
(as these materials have been mainly used for MEMS), and
can be chosen as the sensor material for our design.
Our future direction will be to prototype real-sized
fixture components, as well as perform experiments on the
structural components (e.g., for verifying stiffness), as well
as real-time sensing and control elements.
Above experiments were conducted using the exact testing
procedure and setup for the smaller locators as well,
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