Fully autonomous robots are one of the first thing that come to mind when visualizing our future world. No longer restricted to science fiction, a range of robotics have already become integral to our society, from automated production lines, to radio controlled drones, to medical devices.
Development is still needed to get closer to that final vision, but 3D printing in robotics promises new levels of precision and reduced costs, making it vital to ushering in the next generation of robots.
Part 1: The History of 3D Printed Robotics
The first modern robots were invented in the 1950s by American inventor George C. Devol. His earliest prototypes for the ‘Unimate,’ a programmable system of transporting objects, used crude vacuum tubes and digital switches.
In the decades since, with improvements in production methods and computing, we have reached a point where not only are robotic systems used on an industrial scale, but artificial intelligence allows them to run without human input.
How 3D Printing is Helping Modern Robotics
In recent years, 3D printing has become a crucial component in the robotics industry. 3D printing can produce far more accurate parts for robotics projects with less wasted material. Using Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) or Directed Energy Deposition (DED), metal products can be produced much cheaper than with traditional manufacturing methods.
For more information on this, read our Directed Energy Deposition article here.
By fitting their own FDM technology to an industrial 8-axis motion arm, they were able to use deposition 3D printing to produce some of the largest parts ever made on 3D printers. This also had the added benefit of allowing freeform manufacturing with more intricate designs much quicker than with existing 3D printers.
And the increasing availability of 3D printing to hobbyists has made previously exclusive robotics more accessible than ever before. Open source robot projects like InMoov and Poppy are available for anyone do download and print on a desktop 3D printer, bringing robotics into the home like never before.
With 3D printing becoming an ever-greater fixture of the industry, here are the two main areas of robotics in which 3D printing has made the most difference:
Part 2: The Main Forms of 3D Printed Robotics
Hard robotics are robots that are made with strong, rigid structures, able to move only through actuators, a component that facilitates mechanical movement, at joints between parts. Most of today’s robots are made using hard robotics, including the recently landed NASA Mars Rover Perseverance. They are much easier to construct and program, as well as being much stronger.
In fact, 11 components on Perseverance were made using 3D printing. Five of them, a two-piece titanium casing, a mounting frame, and two support struts, were used in the Rover’s Planetary Instrument for X-Ray Lithochemistry (PIXL), a device used for x-raying Mars’ surface and detecting signs of fossilized microbes.
NASA has stated that 3D printing has helped to reduce the mass of these components by three or four times, which has helped to reduce fuel consumption, both of the lander and the Rover.
Almost all 3D printing on Earth focuses on metals and plastics. These are relatively easy to mold materials, and they are extremely strong and durable. Hard robotics relies on these materials and the precision 3D printing allows makes complex components far easier to produce.
Many 3D printed robotics projects use 3D printing to produce both the metal skeleton as well as plastic covering using a more targeted and customizable process than with other methods.
Like with Perseverance, engineers can design and print their models with microscopic accuracy, reducing waste material and making parts lighter.
This has paved the way for the revolutionary new developments in robotics we have seen in recent years, including robots like Poppy that can walk upright and perform tasks on command. And with 3D printing becoming ever more domestic, hard robotic products are increasingly finding their way into our homes.
The fact that 3D printing reduces waste material, and therefore improves cost efficiency, achieves one major benefit. Stratasys have championed 3D printing in significantly aiding the development of their robotic arms and allowing greater freedom in design.
Comparatively, soft robotics is a much younger industry, but no less promising. It differs from hard robotics as it uses more flexible materials with actuators built throughout the structure, allowing animal-like free movement.
Already we are seeing designs and prototypes for robotic shoe insoles for helping those who struggle to walk by aiding with balance and reducing discomfort for those with flat feet, and even life jackets with mechanical components built in to help the wearer stay afloat.
Additionally, in many of the most advanced and lifelike hard robotics projects, soft robotics is incorporated to mimic muscle and skin.
3D printing is a natural fit for this sector, as the complexity of the designs and materials at work are made much more efficient with 3D printing technology. Using elastic materials that can withstand stress and never lose their shape is crucial.
Synthetic plastics like silicone are perfect for this, but are very difficult to mold effectively by traditional methods. 3D printing is pushing back these boundaries, with silicone resins making precise printing a much easier process.
Click here to read more about this in our Silicone 3D Printing feature.
This has allowed researchers to print silicone structures in a variety of shapes and sizes that can be combined with pre-programmed or artificial intelligence-based robotic components that have a broad array of useful everyday applications.
Manufacturer ACEO has developed a silicone 3D printed robotic gripper tool, which has a three-pronged hand on the end of an arm. This can be used by disabled or elderly people to retrieve unreachable items without injuring themselves.
Professors at Oregon State University conducted a study in 2018 to compare silicone 3D printing in soft robotics to traditional molding, and found that 3D printing greatly reduced deficiencies in human error, manual handling and multistep fabrication.
With this, it is clear that 3D printing is the future of soft robotics, and of the robotics industry at large.
Part 3: The Most Advanced 3D Printed Robotics Projects
Despite being one of the oldest robotic projects around, InMoov, invented by French sculptor and designer Gael Langevin, has been reenergized by the 3D printing industry and is once more paving the way for future development.
Starting as a single prosthetic hand, and advancing to being a full upper body as of now, InMoov is limited in its functions, restricted to simple movements and gestures, but has many intricate parts that move independently, including fingers and eyes.
However, that is not what makes InMoov special. What does is the fact that the designs are publicly available on their website, and the code is open-source, meaning anyone can print or modify InMoov themselves in their own home, and program it using community-created code.
All you need to build your own model is a desktop 3D printer with a 12 x 12 x 12 cm build volume, three servo motors, an Arduino Uno and Mega microcontroller, and MyRobot Lab and Python scripting software, as well as the required printing materials.
Naturally, InMoov is a favorite of laboratories and universities, and is used for teaching computing and programming. But the truly accessible nature of such an advanced model is a good omen for the future of 3D printed robotics.
Poppy is a bipedal humanoid robot developed by Matthieu Lapeyre for his PhD thesis and first produced in the Flowers Laboratory in Bordeaux in 2012. Poppy is entirely 3D printed and is capable of fluid movement, including walking.
Much like InMoov, Poppy is an open-source project and the building blocks are available for any hobbyist or professional to access and reproduce. Poppy is also scalable, meaning that, with the right mechanical components, it can be produced in any size to either fit or maximize the build volume of any 3D printer.
The simplicity of the design means that components can be added or removed to reproduce at mass market levels, allowing anyone to have their own Poppy built to their custom characteristics. And she can be programmed with any number of choice commands.
Poppy’s web interface allows the user to pre-program tasks to be carried out without any need for further input, meaning you can leave your house and let Poppy act independently.
Giving anyone the ability to print these robots from home, 3D printing is democratizing a once-exclusive industry. This is the future that 3D printing has always promised to bring.
In the 3D printing manufacturing sector, companies like Ai build have commercialized the service of 3D printing using robotic arms. They offer a service for printing anything using a range of different materials in a quicker and more cost-effective way than ever before.
The process works in two combined aspects. Ai Sync is a cloud platform that allows clients to upload CAD designs, then automates the entire production process. These monitoring capabilities include detecting imperfections in the part, to the robot’s efficiency and more. Alongside this is the Ai Maker, which is a series of multi-dimension robotic arms with built-in 3D printing technology that uses artificial intelligence to program the system to print.
Ai Build claim that not only is their process cheaper than traditional manufacturing methods, but even cheaper than other forms of 3D printing, while producing next to zero waste material or human labor. It also reduces production times dramatically.
Their technology has seen applications in the defense, aviation, construction and energy sectors, and they list a number of case studies that demonstrate the benefits of the process over other methods. They are able to use nearly any 3D printable material, from plastics to metals and even concrete for varied applications, and they even offer a subscription service for frequent orders.
Part 4: The Future of 3D Printed Robotics
A major area 3D printed robotics could revolutionize is 3D printing robotics in medicine. We’ve talked before about medical 3D printing, but robotics is a new area in this industry with wide ranging benefits.
While 3D printing has been previously used in the construction of prosthetics, combining this with robotics could allow amputees to have robotic limbs connected to their nervous system, allowing them to move as if they were a real limb.
Early experiments into 3D printed soft robotic prosthetic hands, which would look more realistic, have shown them to be functional and lightweight, yet not quite ready to handle the rigor of regular use, although hard robotics hands are becoming more common, with robotic surgical arms similar to those used in manufacturing.
Surgeons are also researching the possibility of 3D printed surgical implants with robotic capabilities, which can not only be custom printed to fit a specific patient’s anatomy but also programmed to adapt and adjust to the patient’s evolving condition. This could change the way we treat internal injuries, broken bones, or even diseases like cancer.
More widely, wearable robotics could also help to augment the human body and improve our physical capabilities. Body suits that improve lifting or movement strength could help construction workers and laborers with their jobs and prevent deterioration of their bodies over years of stress, and enhance quality of life in later years.
Conceptual designs for robotic enhancements to eyesight are also being made. And all of these new technologies are only made practical or even possible to imagine by the benefits provided by 3D printing.
While it may not be realistic to think we will be living in Night City in the next few decades, the ways in which 3D printing robotics is and will continue to benefit our lives will only be further enforced by time.