Future microscopic-sized machines assembled with micrometer or nanometer-scale parts will need to be made with devices that use tiny, agile "fingers" that can grip, lift and do the assembly work in a controlled, coordinated way.
Within their tiny chip-like station, four micro "fingers" can grasp and move micron-sized particles as commanded. Micro tweezer-like devices now commercially available can only grip and hold small particles in place, but to manipulate them requires accessory devices that make the process cumbersome. The UIC engineers got around this problem.
"We thought of mimicking the functionality of human fingers," said Saggere. "The device has multiple, coordinated fingers that grip a particle and take it from one given position to another within a small area."
Saggere and Krishnan have proved this works, using a laboratory device they built. The prototype is proof of the concept, but refinements are planned.
"We can increase the number of fingers, increase the area in which manipulation can occur, or enable more dexterous positioning of even smaller particles by improving the fingertip design," he said. "We can also add a little more flexibility and reduce the footprint size of the device in an improved design."
Making the fingers flexible and dexterous enough to do precise work at the micro-scale level has yet to be accomplished. Saggere and Krishnan developed systematic algorithms to design the configuration of the flexible fingers in the micromanipulator to coordinate with each other like human fingers at the micro- or even nanometer scale.