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.
Very cool initiative, but I have to wonder about the complexity of creating a 3D printer that is capable of allowing the average consumer to actually produce something that is so complex is terms of functional behaviors, not just physical form. It's one thing for a 3D printer to effortlessly crank out a screw or a bolt or some other physical piece of hardware that can fix a household appliance, but doesn't perform any movement. It's quite another to 3D print an entire robot that has motion to unscrew a jar or open a door.
No doubt it's possible in a research lab; I'm just wondering about the realities of commercialization on a grander scale.
Beth, I agree with you on the commercialization aspects of this project. Many of us would support NSF funding for research activities but the focus on "developing a desktop technology that lets the average person design, customize, and print a specialized robot in a few hours" is curious. Certainly the average person isn't going to produce results in terms of research funding, but I assume the project has primarily been funded on its merits as significant research.
Ann, from the pictures I can see that this is a primitive device. Where are the joints? This will not have the mobility that is discussed.
What I really don't understand is the use of the term "democratize". To do what these researchers talk about you could certianly use a wheeled vehicle to better effect. What is the NSF doing funding this? If you could make really useful robots from just a specification language and a 3-D printer then people would be doing it.
I agree with your skepticism to some extent, Al and Beth. By looking at the background data, it appears that the researchers have used the words "design and customize" to really mean "customize" on a couple of different levels. What intrigued me about this, aside from the robot angle, is that it's quite in line with other developments Beth has written about regarding the use of blueprints by consumers to 3D print household items. This just takes that a couple steps farther with slightly more complex machines.
naperlou, the research has only just begun, so you're right that no one is doing this yet. The photos show prototypes, no doubt the ones shown to the NSF. The fact of who is involved also piqued my interest: the concentrated brainpower here is quite high, and many of the people involved have already done some pretty amazing things in robotics.
I totally agree with you, Ann, and it is in keeping with some of the other stuff we've written about. The thing is these robots are real robots thus have to actually move and perform tasks. That's where the reliance on 3D printing is questionable, in my book. We wrote about this initiative My Robot Nation, where 3D printer companies were trying to encourage lay people to design and print their own robots, but these were toy robots. Very doable. This NSF thing--maybe not so much.
I don't know if this would be classified as applied or basic research, but I like the fact that it has a five-year goal of compiling printable, programmable machines. The fact that it has a $10 million NSF grant must mean that someone thinks it's realistic.
Seems to me that makerspaces (hackerspaces) are already moving in this direction w/o the government or millions of dollars for grants. Anyone check out Jeremy Blum on YouTube and the makerspace movement?
I think this is very cool. Of course, at best, this will develop a collection of basic devices that can be linked together with quasi-rigid peices that the user lays out. But if the basic devices are at the right "scale" this could be a big step forward.
Think of the Lego Mindstorms system. It enables kids to build autonomous devices using a half a dozen special purpose Lego bricks, and their Lego sets. This project would use 3D printing to free the user from the limitations of the Legos. The other component would be simplifying the programming. Even Mindstorms programming is pretty rigorous. Developing the next level of abstraction in programming would be worth the $10 Million by itself.
I agree, this is cool, but I'm a little skeptical too... not that it couldn't be done, but I don't think we're there yet... or at least not a the level I think is implied by the teams.
Are the pictures actual working prototypes or theoretical mock-ups/proposals? The pictures can be telling... the 'frame' may be paper, the PCB may be paper or 3D printed, but it's pretty obvious that the components (op amps? transisters?) are not... so it's like a paper breadboard. I also noticed the wires tethered to the back, suggesting that power and/or control must not reside within the robot.
I've been interested in 3D printing, and even the upcoming revolution in 'printable' technology, such as printable solar panels, printable circuitry, etc. using special inks/toners with standard hardware.
I'm also curious how they'd deal with joints and control of motion... I could see motion powered via piezoelectrics if the material can be conductive and deposited via ink (paper) or 3D printer (maybe sintering as opposed to the plastic printers).
For what application would these be used? As 3D printers improve and become more versatile, I can see application with more rigid structure, but I have a little trouble with the paper aspect, unless we're mainly talking circuitry. These look like origami art mixed with parts from an old radio... The Lego Mindstorm system is cool, although I have yet to get my own system to tinker with (it's really for my son :)), but part of the limitation of the Legos is it's advantage... a reconfigurable rigid modular system.
Although it's neat to think of using paper as a construction medium, it strikes me more as a novelty in practicality... Just thinking of possible applications... self-delivering mail (or notes, across class), toys to chase or pique your pets' interested (until they try attacking/chewing it), paper Roomba, process serving (subpoenas/summons, etc.), negotiations in dangerous/hostage situations, swarm of cellulose assassins (new meaning to the term "death by a thousand papercuts"), or (my favorite) make paper robots out of the NSF grant money and watch it walk away.
As far as programming, programming can be pretty simple... I have little toys 'robots' that run off simple neural networks... although like 'hard wired' into the circuitry, a software/programming variation isn't that complex... I'm sure I could make simple neural net programs in assembler if I wanted, and it's one step away from machine code.
While I'm all for basic research and (useful) applied research, I'm guess I'm not sold on sending $10M in taxpayer money for this type of research project. Just because a bureaucrat gives out a grant doesn't mean that it's worthwhile, and there are numerous examples of that I don't won't to go into right now. In my opinion, I don't have a problem with this research at this time if it is paid for by somebody else... the universities, industry (maybe the paper and/or 3D printer industries), private investors, and/or venture capitalists, but given our current government fiscal incompetence, I'm against this kind of grant... I don't see the return to the government (or their boss, the taxpayers and citizens) for the investment, no matter how often one of them uses the term "democratize".
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