Canadian aerospace firm MacDonald, Dettwiler, and Assoc. (MDA) is working on the design of a robotic spacecraft that will function as a mobile gas station and mechanic for automatically refueling and repairing orbiting satellites. This will save those commercial and government satellites from becoming expensive pieces of space junk and cluttering up Earth's orbit. About the size of a typical communication satellite, the Space Infrastructure Servicing vehicle will be equipped with a robotic arm and a toolkit, working in a remote-controlled mode and carrying out other tasks semi-autonomously.
One interesting chalenge for all of the powder feeding 3D printing systems in outer space will be the lack of gravity to feed the powder. And just imagine the mess if some of that metal powder gets loose in a zero-gravity room. The only worse thing I can imagine is a laser printer cartridge in a zero gravity location having a spill failure. What a mess that would be.
BUT possibly a metal printing system could use a wire feed, like the welders. What an interesting possibility.
William, this collaboration between 3D Systems and Intel, aimed at lower-cost scanning tools, may help with the software issue: http://www.3dsystems.com/press-releases/3d-systems-further-democratize-physical-photography-intel-corporation
Robots that do repair of various kinds have been around for some time, but to date, none of them do 3D printing. One that might do so in the future in space is being designed in collaboration with NASA, which we reported here:
Ann, I did investigate some of the better, I think, 3D scanners about 8 years ago. At that time they cost more than quite a few of the 3D printers that I have seen prices for. Not as much as the good ones that print metal, but still quite expensive. And one would still need to add all of the internal details and features.
Now I am thinking and visualizing a robot that has a tool hand for 3D printing so that it can do repairs. Robotic production welders have been around a long time, that was an early robot task. But a more mobile service robot that could provide a 3D printing function could be quite the service tool.
William, interesting point. I think a related issue may be 3D scanning software, correct? In any case, perhaps you should talk to Cabe--he's our design software guy, and has written quite a bit about 3D design and scanning software. Check it out.
Ann, the one very big limitation of 3D printing is that it takes a 3D design drawing of some kind. The classic and more common 3-views are no longer enough, at least I am not aware of any 3D printer that can work from a multiple view drawing. That puts folks like me in a real bind. I simply have not had the time available to become proficient at 3D design drawing and design ing. I can certainly visualize a three dimensional design in my head, and usually see it very well in my mind. But producing that object in a single 3D drawing suitable for the printer is a different task completely. It is even worse for those with Autocad experience.
How abouta robot that can convert 3 views to a 3D drawing suitable for printing?
You're welcome, William. I was surprised, myself, at the diversity of what service robots can do and what they're being used for. And that's a good point about the effects of 3D printing on component costs, especially in the professional service sector where volumes are lower than the personal and domestic sector. We discussed those differences here http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1386&doc_id=258622
Ann, thanks indeed for the interesting post. It certainly is true that the potential realm of robotic service applications is primarily limited by imagination, although some applications may never be practical, even if they are possible. That will be the challenge for quite a while, since the advances in 3D printing keep lowering the costs of making complex parts. The new developments will provide a source ofr future articles for quite a long time, it appears.
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