Start-up Launched in "Artificial Muscle" Technology

July 27, 2004
Artificial Muscle Inc. plans to develop electroactive polymer technology for use in actuator and sensor components that expand and contract, similar to human muscles.

You’ve likely heard the term artificial intelligence. But what about artificial muscle?

A West Coast start-up company named Artificial Muscle Inc. (AMI), is hoping to cash in on a new generation of electroactive polymer materials by developing actuator and sensing components for a variety of markets, including industrial automation. The company, which secured $2.5 million in venture capital funding last February, is the latest in a series of spin-off companies from SRI International, a Menlo Park, Calif., non-profit research and development organization. SRI developed the core technology that forms the basis for the AMI venture.

AMI, also based in Menlo Park, Calif., refers to its technology as electroactive polymer artificial muscle (EPAM). The material is called artificial muscle because it behaves much like a human muscle, expanding when exposed to an electric current and contracting when the current is removed, thereby converting static electrical field energy into programmable mechanical motion.

Energy density

When compared to conventional actuator technologies, EPAM exhibits significant advantages in energy density, says Alex Beavers, AMI founder and chief executive officer (CEO). “We have a technology that can deliver one or two orders of magnitude greater energy per kilogram than electromagnetic motor-based technologies, piezo actuators or other kinds of technologies.”

EPAM-based products can be smaller, lighter and cheaper than the products they replace, Beavers says. Potential industrial applications include linear actuators, variable controls for pumps and valves, vibration damping devices, and force, pressure and position sensors. AMI also sees potential applications in industries including consumer electronics and medical devices.

AMI management includes individuals who know their way around the industrial automation marketplace. Beavers served previously as CEO of Thomson Industries, a linear motion company that was acquired by Danaher Corp., Washington, D.C., and he has also held executive positions within General Electric’s industrial automation businesses. AMI also recently hired Charlie Duncheon as vice president of marketing and sales. Duncheon, an automation industry veteran, has more than 20 years of high technology marketing and sales management experience, serving most recently as senior vice president of sales and marketing for Adept Technology Inc., a Livermore, Calif., assembly robot company.

Prototypes

Beavers says that AMI is currently working with several customers who are funding the development of prototype components for use in their products. The list includes a number of industrial equipment vendors, he says. Timing for the commercial availability of the first EPAM-based components will depend heavily on the product life cycles of the companies that AMI is working with, Beavers says. “But I would be surprised if we don’t have something in production volumes within a couple of years,” he adds.

Duncheon concurs with that timetable. He adds that in the near-term, AMI also intends to provide EPAM development kits for use by research and development labs and others in evaluating the technology for their own applications.

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