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Legos Form Building Blocks of Automated Process for Making Synthetic Bone

Engineering researchers at the University of Cambridge (UK) have turned playtime into productivity. In a burst of creativity, the team employed Lego robotics to build a simple, inexpensive robot that effectively automates processing of synthetic bone.

Using hydroxyapatite-gelatin composites, the engineers are developing synthetic bone that boasts low energy costs in addition to closely resembling real human tissue. But achieving such a material can be labor intensive and rather tedious, according to the researchers. "To make the bone-like substance, you take a sample. Then, you dip it into one beaker of calcium and protein, then rinse it in some water and dip in into another beaker of phosphate and protein-you have to do it over and over and over again to build up the compound," explains Daniel Strange, a PhD student involved with the research.

Looking to automate the process, the engineers determined that the ideal solution would be a robot that could be left unattended to perform the necessary tasks for creating the synthetic bone material. Rather than purchasing an expensive, off-the-shelf kit, however, the team decided to experiment with the use of a Lego Mindstorms robotics kit. Containing microprocessors, motors, and sensors that can be programmed to perform repeatable basic tasks, the kit enabled the researchers to create a crane to which the sample is attached. The crane then carries out the task of dipping the sample into the different solutions, creating an automated solution that removes the burden of tedious labor from the researchers.

"The great thing about the robots is once you tell them what to do, they can do it very precisely over and over again," Strange adds. "So, a day later, I can come back and see a fully made sample." See a video of the novel automation solution below.

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