Introduction: DIY Universal Robot Gripper

Picture of DIY Universal Robot Gripper

There are a lot of different kinds of robot grippers (end effectors). The most common strategy when designing a robot hand is to try to replicate the human hand. However, in 2010 researchers at Cornell University and University of Chicago developed a unique approach. They created an amorphous gripper that was able to mold itself to the object that it wanted to pick up. This kind of gripper is much more versatile. 

In this project, I am going to show you how to make your own DIY universal gripper for your robots. 

Step 1: Background: How It Works

Picture of Background: How It Works
This gripper works because of a process that is called "jamming." When a granular material such as coffee is compressed, it becomes very rigid. As the pressure increases so does the amount of friction between the individual grains. This effectively locks the grains in place.

You may have observed this phenomenon while handling bags of coffee grounds. A vacuum packed bag of coffee grounds is rock hard as long as the seal remains intact. But as soon as the seal is broken, the coffee become soft and pliable and can be poured like a fluid. This process happens with many granular materials such as rice, couscous and even sand.

We are utilizing this process to make an amorphous robot gripper. A balloon is filled coffee grounds and attached to an air hose. When balloon is slightly pressurized the grounds are loose and easily rearranged. By pressing the balloon against an object, the grounds will move around it and take its shape. But when the air is sucked out of the balloon, the grounds are compressed and grip the object. The rubber surface of the balloon also helps to keep a hold of the object.

Here is a video from Cornell University that explains the process:

Step 2: Materials

Picture of Materials

Here are the tools and materials that you will need for this project:

Plastic Funnel
Coffee Grounds
Duct Tape
Air Hose/Tubing
Thin Cloth
Small Plastic Tube (optional)

Air pump for pumping air into and out of the balloon

Step 3: Fill the Balloon With Coffee

Picture of Fill the Balloon With Coffee

The first thing that you need to do is fill the balloon with coffee grounds. To do this, attach the balloon to the end of a short tube or pipe. Then insert the funnel into the other end. Scoop about a tablespoon of grounds into the funnel and it will pour down into the balloon. Then remove the funnel and blow into the tube to partially inflate the balloon. This will allow all the grounds to fall to the bottom of the balloon. As you slowly let the air back out, the grounds will remain trapped in the balloon. Then insert the funnel back into the tube and repeat the process.

Continue adding coffee. Periodically, set the balloon inside the funnel to check its size. You want the balloon to stick out about one inch past the edge of the funnel. Once you have enough coffee grounds in the balloon, you can remove the balloon from the tube.

Step 4: Cut the End of the Funnel

Picture of Cut the End of the Funnel

Now we need to put the balloon in the funnel and insert the neck of the balloon through the narrow opening. Unfortunately most kitchen funnels have a narrow section that is several inches long. This makes the process very difficult. 

So to make it easier, I cut the narrow section of the funnel so that it is only 1/2 inch long. You can do this with any sharp knife. After cutting the funnel try to smooth off any rough edges. 

Step 5: Attach the Balloon to the Funnel

Picture of Attach the Balloon to the Funnel

Insert the neck of the balloon through the funnel and wrap it around the opening on the other side. To hold it in place, I applied small strips of duct tape.

Step 6: Attach Fabric to the Opening of the Balloon

Picture of Attach Fabric to the Opening of the Balloon

We want the coffee grounds to stay inside the balloon. To prevent them from falling out, I attached a small piece of fabric to the opening. This will act as a rough filter. You want to use a fabric that breathes easily so that the air pump will be able to quickly move air in and out of the balloon.

Tightly wrap the fabric around the opening of the funnel. Then secure it in place with small strips of duct tape.

Step 7: Attach the Air Hose to the Funnel

Picture of Attach the Air Hose to the Funnel

Now you need to attach the air hose to the funnel. The easiest way to do this is to hold the funnel up the air hose and attach them together with several layers of duct tape. You want to make a (mostly) air tight seal. So feel free to use as much tape as you want.

Step 8: Use the Universal Gripper to Pick Up Objects

Picture of Use the Universal Gripper to Pick Up Objects

Now you are ready to use your universal gripper to pick up objects.

Start by partially inflating the balloon. This will make the grains loose so that they will freely move around the object. Then gently press the balloon on top of the object. Now suck the air out of the balloon. Continue pressing down on the object as the balloon deflates. The balloon will shrink and the grounds will be lock in place around the object.

When all the air is sucked out of the balloon, you should be able to pick up the object. As long as the vacuum is maintained, the universal gripper should continue to hold the object firmly. To release the object, simply break the seal and let some air back into the balloon. The object will then fall from the gripper. If you quickly blow air back into the balloon the gripper will forcefully eject the object. You can use this to shoot small objects across the room. 

This kind of gripper is ideal from pneumatically powered robots. All you have to do is hook the gripper up to the robot's air line and you will be able to manipulate a wide variety of objects with ease.




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PradeepS90 (author)2017-02-07

awesome. Really!!!

Irwan2 (author)2014-05-06

Hi, this is cool stuff. You just remind me of Doraemon (cat robot from Japan) anime. Now I understand how he is able to hold things in his round hand. Looks like the author himself knows his stuff pretty well.

PradeepS90 (author)Irwan22017-02-07

Very high thought though.

MicioGatta (author)Irwan22014-09-27

Me too!!


zposner (author)2016-12-12


MatthewN32 (author)2016-10-08

my science class is starting robotics, my friend and i could put good use to this


ScottT110 (author)2016-10-03

Do you have a specific air compressor to recommend for a robot?

It shouldn't make a difference.

Zhuna87 (author)2016-10-02

Great instructable, you are a really good inventor.

DanielC106 (author)2016-09-11

now thats how robot basketball players are going to be made... :D

drewscreen (author)2016-09-06

I was thinking the same thing: that this would make a great lightweight universal clamp. Perhaps this should also be listed in the tools section too.

Cheiron (author)2016-09-02

Great idea! This would make an awesome work holder for projects.

Jdsardone (author)2014-04-16

Very cool idea, and simple to make.

Also, so as not to confuse people, in step 1, first paragraph you say "As the pressure increases so does the amount of friction between the individual grains. This effectively locks the grains in place."

But I think you mean as pressure decreases (aka vacuum forms) the friction goes up, locking the grains in place"

I guess my wording was a little ambiguous. What I meant was "as the grains are pressed against each other (which happens as a result of the change in air pressure)."

Sorry to cause you any trouble but can you please comment on my instructable again(It's kind of an honour) all the comments got deleted from my instructable somehow. Here's the link of my instructable

By the way a AWESOME Instructable!!!!

rasika iceman (author)2016-09-02

thanks for the great idea..will make it :D

mbonifax (author)2016-08-29

very good. tahnks a lot

Friedhelm (author)2016-08-29

Good idea! One more terrific thing one can do with coffee.

jrv_boots (author)2016-08-28

Is it possible to "re-use" those grounds (after their initial and intended use) by drying? My initial leanings would say "Yes!"


james.woods.581 made it! (author)2016-03-12

The gripper is really cool. The steps are easy to follow. I used millet instead of coffee ground, and it worked. Looking forward to testing with different materials. =)

TechnoWombat (author)2014-04-20

Instructable by Davros?

Haha, I was actually looking for something for a robot Dalek I want to make, an this comment made my day!

GabeLou (author)2015-08-17

Wow cool idea. I'm making that as soon as I can.

DerpyCyclops (author)2015-02-03

Nice Instructable!

Ardumedes (author)2014-06-06

Very nice! Good instructable and helped make a boring afternoon interesting!

ASCAS (author)2014-05-16

Nice! Will flour work?

Maybe. A lot of materials will work. Coffee just works well because is has such a low density.

macrumpton (author)2014-04-21

I wonder if you could use a large hypodermic syringe to suck the air out? That would be a much smaller and cheaper device then a vacuum cleaner and you could even control the plunger with a motor or solenoid.

Yes. In fact there is another instructable that uses that method.
The only issue that you may have is being able to suck out enough air to create a proper vacuum. The larger the balloon is the more air you will need to remove.

Vampyra65 (author)2014-04-20

This is a pretty cool idea :o)

DemolisionWolf (author)2014-04-20

A coin!? It can pick up a coin!? This is incredible

the batman (author)2014-04-20

There's already a piece of Cloth

rtudeschini (author)2014-04-20

Very cool. I'd add a small piece of cloth to act as a filter, to prevent the coffee from being sucked to the hose. And for an electric robot, you could attach a large syringe to a spindle, to generate both the negative and positive pressures needed to the system. Thanks for the amazing instructable!

Silence (author)2014-04-20

OMFG ! Its a Dalek gripper !!

mikeasaurus (author)2014-04-20

These grippers are so neat

Chain N Sprocket (author)2014-04-20


rkrishnan7 (author)2014-04-20

Great idea, excellent presentation and exceptional diction - you could easily be a news anchor but we are glad you chose to be a Maker instead!

rich_2910 (author)2014-04-18

doraemon? is that you?

Sorry but I am not really familiar with that cartoon.

craftclarity (author)2014-04-18

This is one of the most interesting developments in robotics I've seen in at least the last fifteen years. It's nice to see roboticists taking such a lateral approach to solving the many problems inherent in developing grippers for arms and the like. SUPER COOL! Thanks for sharing this.

samjohn (author)2014-04-18

Very cool!

freakhanya (author)2014-04-18

very innovative gonna try this. can u kindly add up the link for corresponding pneumatic.

Bobey (author)2014-04-18

Wow I will do this and pick up the WORLD

C-R-E-8 (author)2014-04-17

Very Cool but cant it damage the vacuum cleaner after long periods

It isn't much worse than normal use. But for something that you would use regularly, you would want a good quality vacuum pump that is design for this kind of task. Many robots are already pneumatically powered, so you would probably use the air pump that is already powering the robot.

the batman (author)2014-04-18

This is a very creative and unusual way for a robot hand to pick things up, I love it

About This Instructable




Bio: My name is Jason Poel Smith I am a Community Manager here at Instructables. In my free time, I am an Inventor, Maker, Hacker, Tinker ... More »
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