A research program that aims to let consumers produce their own customized robots with 3D printers and paper hopes to create a platform that allows people to identify household problems that can be solved by a robot, select a blueprint from a library of designs at a local printing store, customize a robotic device that can solve the problem, and then produce a fully assembled, fully programmed robot within 24 hours.
With funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to the tune of a $10 million grant, a team of experts from several leading robotics labs will participate in the five-year project, called "An Expedition in Computing for Compiling Printable Programmable Machines." The project is part of the NSF's "Expeditions in Computing" program, and will be led by MIT professor Daniela Rus, a principal investigator at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL). CSAIL is the same lab that came up with the 3D navigating robot.
An insect-like robot designed and 3D printed with common materials such as paper could be used for exploring areas inaccessible to, or too dangerous for, humans. (Source: Jason Dorfman, CSAIL/MIT)
So far, the researchers have prototyped two machines that could be designed, printed, and programmed with a 3D printer. These are an insect-like robot that could explore contaminated or inaccessible areas, and a gripping device for people with limited mobility. All of these efforts are designed to help speed and simplify the labor of developers in industry and university researchers working on new design platforms. The project targets faster and cheaper design and manufacturing by developing a desktop technology that lets the average person design, customize, and print a specialized robot in a few hours.
Professor Vijay Kumar, who is leading the team from the University of Pennsylvania, is also the head of the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing, and Perception (GRASP) Laboratory there, which is responsible for the tiny flying, swarming robots we reported on recently. His team in the NSF project will include Andre DeHon, Sanjeev Khanna, and Insup Lee.
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.
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For industrial control applications, or even a simple assembly line, that machine can go almost 24/7 without a break. But what happens when the task is a little more complex? That’s where the “smart” machine would come in. The smart machine is one that has some simple (or complex in some cases) processing capability to be able to adapt to changing conditions. Such machines are suited for a host of applications, including automotive, aerospace, defense, medical, computers and electronics, telecommunications, consumer goods, and so on. This discussion will examine what’s possible with smart machines, and what tradeoffs need to be made to implement such a solution.