Photo: Reuters

JOHANNESBURG – People often ask what the next big thing is in the world of technological innovation. 

Ray Bingham, the previous executive chairman of Cypress Semiconductor Corporation, said: “The next big thing is a trillion small things.” This is particularly true of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) that builds on the digital revolution and is characterized by a convergence of different technologies that are seamlessly and smartly merging the physical, digital, and biological spheres, thus significantly impacting the social and economic realms.

It is the convergence of three of these technologies – 3D printing, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and robotics – that is opening up new possibilities. 3D printing provides designers with a freedom to introduce new functionality to their robots as research and development progresses, as well as the flexibility to customise the robots for specific uses. 3D printing is thus not only used for designing and prototyping of robots, but is also widely used as a smart manufacturing practice for production due to the recognition of the benefits of additive manufacturing.

But the convergence goes far beyond the 3D printing of robots. 3D printing and robotics is combined to create smart factories where large objects need to be created additively very accurately and repeatedly.

The combination of 3D printing and industrial robots is attained either by equipping a robotic arm with a material deposition head as was done by Stratasys with their Robotic Composite 3D Demonstrator. Alternatively, an integrated solution could be created where industrial robots assist 3D printing at various stages of the production process.

The major benefits are the ability to create numerous parts with complex geometries in a fast and cost-effective way; freeform manufacturing; and reduced material waste due to better material management. 

Robotic Additive Manufacturing (RAM) or robotic 3D printing seems to be a game changer in the metal casting industry, partly because it provides a scalable platform to produce custom made, geometrically complex objects faster and on demand. 

One of the biggest beneficiaries of robotic 3D printing is perhaps the construction industry, where it is used to create large and complex geometric structures such as facade panels, columns, benches, pavilions and steel bridges.

But it is only when the robots and additive machines are combined with AI that smart and automated repair becomes possible. The Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, in partnership with the Innovative Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre (IMCRC) and Tradiebot Industries, has been working on a project called Repair Bot. 3D scanning and 3D printing is used to create replacement car parts, while industrial robots automate the assembly and repair process.

But AMBOTS has gone much further into the realm of “swarm” (team) robotics by commercialising swarm 3D printing and assembly technologies invented by the AM3 Lab at the University of Arkansas. The basic idea to implement autonomous manufacturing is to break down digital designs into a set of basic manufacturing tasks that can be executed and coordinated by a “swarm” of specialised robots. 

The first basic manufacturing task is the depositing and joining of materials. AMBOTS therefore developed a wirelessly controlled mobile robot that can deposit and join materials for 3D printing.

Assembly is another basic task for the manufacturing of any complex product. A pick-and-place mobile robot for digital assembly was therefore developed to be the second member of the mobile robot crew. Many other robot crewmembers are being developed, such as a tape laying robot, inkjet robot, adhesive printing robot, and screw driving robot.

Each robot is 80 percent 3D printed and is almost an entire construction crew able to complete intricate production tasks, assemble items, use tools, weld and even do some 3D printing of their own. Each printbot has a printer, filament spool, and an extruder.

To enable a swarm of mobile robots working together without causing conflicts, painstaking planning is needed. This is done through software that analyses the conceptual design and digital model, split it into smaller tasks, assign the tasks to different robots, and schedule the robots to finish the tasks in sequence and in parallel to produce physical products from a variety of materials.

When a “swarm” of 3D printing robots act as an organised unit they are capable of performing tasks much more complicated than an individual machine can handle. The idea of swarm 3D printing originated from nature, where ants and bees operate in self-organised teams while constantly communicating with one another to complete a common, and often complex, goal.

The idea of AMBOT is to change the current mass production of products by building generalised, autonomous factories that can produce anything for anyone, on demand and inexpensively. Could swarm 3D printing and assembly possibly be the next generation 3D printing technology? If so, they would certainly replace human workers. Nevertheless, swarm robotics offers new solutions to real-world problems through flexibility, robustness, and scalability.

Another promising development is the invention of “4D printing” (also known as 4D bioprinting, active origami, or shape-morphing systems) currently researched by scientists of the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT). 4-dimensional printing uses the same techniques as 3D printing, namely computer-programmed depositing of material in consecutive layers to create a 3D object. However, 4D printing adds the dimension of transformation over time. Printed objects have the added functionality of co-operating with each other almost like a robot swarm as is illustrated by examples from MIT’s laboratory such as printed cubes that fold before your eyes, or pipes that are able to identify the need to expand or contract. 

At Purdue University researchers have developed a new design method to create soft robots that may help with the care of elderly family members. People are getting much older than ever before. It is therefore estimated that the number of people older than 60 years will double by the year 2050. This will certainly increase the demand for caregivers that could provide 24-hour care. 

This is where caregiving robots come into the picture. These carer robots are programmed to ask typical nursing questions and can monitor patients for falls. The problem is, however, the hard structure of the robots that prevents them from a safe human-robot interaction, thus limiting their support to mere social interaction and not physical interaction.

Recent advances in material science have enabled the fabrication of robots with deformable bodies or the ability to reshape when touched. Purdue University researchers have developed a new design method that shows promise in enabling the efficient design and fabrication of soft robots using a 3D printer. 

The Architected Soft Machines (ASMs) move like humans, except instead of muscles they rely on miniaturised motors that pull nylon lines tied to the ends of their limbs. They can easily perform complex motions such as gripping or crawling.

Ultimately, the combination of 3D printing and robotics is beneficial not only because it makes large-scale 3D printed objects possible, but in the bigger picture, industrial robots help to integrate the technology with the conventional automated production systems. The automation of additive manufacturing and its integration into the industrial landscape will eventually open many opportunities for the smart manufacturing of the future.

Come to think of it, individuals have never been so powerful in the entire human history due to effective personalised devices, such as personal computers and smart phones. 3D printing technology is literally bringing individual power into a new dimension by blurring the boundary between information and physical products. As a result, our society is facing two paradigm shifts: 1) from the era of personal computing to personal fabrication and 2) from the era of mass production to mass customisation. 

The next generation of cheaper, faster, and more efficient 3D printers will expand the applications of 3D printing technology to every aspect of our work and life. 

Professor Louis Fourie is Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Knowledge & Information Technology – Cape Peninsula University of Technology. The views expressed here are his own.

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