3D printers come in all shapes and sizes. We’ve seen everything from the conventional desktop printer to robots that print bridges underneath their own feet, or industrial-sized extrusion machines that can build houses. But any printer that is tethered down has limitations – it can’t reach past its own body to build in 360 degrees, and it can’t work on two sides of a project at the same time.
For Siemens, the response to these limitations was to make robot spiders. In the same way spiders can build webs much larger than themselves, the autonomous robots can team up to build 3D structures.
The project began at Siemens’ Princeton, New Jersey campus, but the company hopes for input from programmers and designers across its global offices. The spiders work in teams, using depth perception cameras and infrared laser scanners to see. They can maneuver around one another and work on different parts of the same object, or each build their own copies of an object. The onboard cameras calculate exactly how much area that particular spider can cover, and use that information to communicate with the others around it. This level of collaboration has never been possible before using mobile manufacturing.
So far, the Princeton team has two working spiders. A third is used for testing. Livio Dalloro, head organizer of the Siemens Product Design, Simulation & Modeling Research group headquartered in Princeton, told Quartz that “The idea is really to make these flexible autonomous, communicating, general purpose machines.” This “mobile manufacturing” could be used to make objects of all shapes and sizes, from tiny circuits to skyscrapers.
The company started working on the software for the spiders in January of 2014. It’s built on NX, a Siemens PLM software solution, and another system that combines NX and an operating system called ROS (Robot Operating System).
The components of the spiders were also themselves 3D printed.
Right now, their extruders can only work with polylactic acid, a filament based on cornstarch and sugarcane.
“We are looking at using multiple autonomous robots for collaborative additive manufacturing of structures, such as car bodies, the hulls of ships and airplane fuselages,” said Dalloro.
They are very much an experiment – Dalloro says the project is “just cool to work on” – but his team is also open to unexpected “moonshot” technologies that could be spun off from their work on the spiders.
Filed Under: 3D printing • additive manufacturing • stereolithography, Industrial automation