Now, the programming, design, and production of a functional robot takes several years, is extremely expensive, and involves multiple disciplines, such as hardware and software design, advanced programming technique, and machine learning and vision. The research team's goal in the new project is to automate the process of producing functional 3D objects. Interestingly, the other major goal is to let ordinary people design and build fully functioning robots from everyday materials like sheets of paper, not an entirely new idea in 3D printing.
A robotic gripper 3D printed with easily accessible materials could be used by people with limited mobility. (Source: Jason Dorfman, CSAIL/MIT)
"Our vision is to develop an end-to-end process; specifically, a compiler for building physical machines that starts with a high level of specification of function, and delivers a programmable machine for that function using simple printing processes," said Rus in a press release. "We believe that [this research] has the potential to transform manufacturing and to democratize access to robots."
Researchers' topics of interest are focused on a number of areas, including developing an application programming interface (API) for function specification and design, writing algorithms to control assembly and operation of a device, creating an easy-to-use programming language environment, and designing new, programmable materials for automatically fabricating robots.
In addition to Rus, other members of the CSAIL team include Martin Demaine, Wojciech Matusik, Martin Rinard, and Sangbae Kim of MIT's department of mechanical engineering. The NSF project team also includes Harvard University's associate professor Rob Wood.
Scott, thanks for your input on this subject. It keeps coming up during our discussions of robot packages, and I've also run across the different usage of these terms in a couple of other areas, such as machine vision.
Chuck, the price tag, the five-year span and the assembled brainpower says to me that if these guys can't do it on this project, it probably can't be done--at least not yet. The NSF doesn't hand out that kind of money every day. The NSF is also highly involved in trying to keep the US competitive in STEM.
William, I agree that how this is packaged for consumers is key. I've made the same type of criticisms about giving consumers the ability to 3D print other things, such as toaster parts. However, apparently the idea is that they could only customize existing blueprints, not actually "design" their own robots in an engineering sense.
Good point about the differences in understanding between the engineer and the average consumer in terms of terminology and functionality It's that difference that can often make or break a product. I'm reminded that for years we sold a sensor product with an embedded functionality that made the interface more flexible. We sold a few. We decided to package up that flexible interface in a separate "black box" that lived in a control cabinet and in no time we were selling thousands every year. Counterintuitive? Yes - from the engineering point of view. Perfect for the user.
Scott, I think you're right, and the expectation is that consumers will be buying some kind of package that they then customize. The problem with using the terms "design" and "program" is that they mean something quite different to a consumer than they do to an engineer.
JCG, I agree the photos of paper "robots" do look like mockups, since as naperlou pointed out, the prototypes shown clearly don't have working joints. The article also states they are prototypes, not functional robots. This is a five-year project, so clearly there aren't any results yet. It's also interesting that the research will examine "new, programmable materials."
SparkyWatt, thanks, I hadn't thought of the Lego analogy, but I think that's a great one. Other, equally "far-fetched" methods are already being used for mass-producing small functional robots, such as this one that produces a robot insect from a single sheet:
Beth, the My Robot Nation initiative you wrote about was to create models, so it's admittedly much simpler. But the NSF-funded project is allotting time and money, and particularly some of the best brains in robotics, to a lot of research clearly lacking in the My Robot Nation initiative. That research will focus on several topic areas, including "new, programmable materials." If 3D printing can be used to make parts for aircraft I don't see why it can't be used to print parts for functional robots.
Just think of how much waste we could produce if the general public were able to attempt to produce an individual robot! We have folks with no technical understanding and no concept of cause and effect, and now those could spend a bit of effort and consume resources in creating something robotic. Aside from the mounds of wreckage, consider the implications of a robot produced by somebody who has no grasp of inertia or kinematics. Just think about that!
In addition, consider those "bright young kids" who could be crating assorted robots, learning about the process of creating functional robots, without ever understanding a whole lot of basic engineering and physics fundamentals. IT looks to me like a handy process for producing "unintended consequences", from where I stand.
As cool as the concept sounds, I doubt that the "average" person will be embracing it any time soon. Let's face it, technology has to be "packaged up" and simplified before the average person will use it. Witness the remote controlled television. I can't tell you the number of times my kids went searching for the "lost" remote to turn the TV off, while I actually got up out of my chair, walked over to the box and pushed the "off" button.
The first photos made with a 3D-printed telescope are here and they're not as fuzzy as you might expect. A team from the University of Sheffield beat NASA to the goal. The photos of the Moon were made with a reflecting telescope that cost the research team £100 to make (about $161 US).
A tiny humanoid robot has safely piloted a small plane all the way from cold start to takeoff, landing and coming to a full stop on the plane's designated runway. Yes, it happened in a pilot training simulation -- but the research team isn't far away from doing it in the real world.
Some in the US have welcomed 3D printing for boosting local economies and bringing some offshored manufacturing back onshore. Meanwhile, China is wielding its power of numbers, and its very different relationships between government, education, and industry, to kickstart a homegrown industry.
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