Well this of course is the likely evolution of 3D printing, as it seems like robotics and automation are becoming a part of so many human-driven processes these days. So the tables will turn, in a sense; 3D printing has been used to fabricate a robot and soon a robot will do your 3D printing for you. :) http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1386&doc_id=258309
I agree with Elizabeth--this is a logical next step. But so is another way of achieving a similar automated end: combining 3D printing with self-assembly: http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1392&doc_id=26011
It will be interesting to see if either of these approaches actually materializes and, if so, which one happens first.
Interesting, Ann, but that makes great sense as well--combining 3D printing with assembly (though I was imagining more of a standard automation-type assembly system than the underwater one described in your story). Quite amazing to think of the possibilities of all of this--a completely automated 3D printing and assembly process. Seems not so far off! But what happens to the human workers?
I agree, Liz. It's the next obvious evolutionary step for 3D printing. And it's not surprising that it comes from iRobot. I'll bet there are a lot of robotics designers who are hitting themselves in the head for not thinking of this first.
Indeed, Chuck, but iRobot seems to have gotten there first, at least in announcing heir plans. It fits into their successful consumer robotics strategy, too, as 3D printers are not merely a business product and as they become less expensive, they will find their way into more homes (perhaps beside a Roomba :)).
The addition of robots to a 3D printing system is a logical progression, but the economics depend on how many objects are to be produced, or on how much labor is to be saved per object. While robots are indeed wonderful pieces of automation, thier primary benefit comes from repeating the same task many times. Producing a correct robot program is not a trivial task, it requires time, effort, and expertise. So it is much more likely that the robots would be a great help im mass production of things rather than single units.
There is probably no reason why appropriately sized standard industrial robots would not be able to work with the 3D printer to do everything described in the article. I know that MOTOMAN has been producing a suitable robot for at least ten years. I am sure that other robot makers have also been producing them as well. And linking the robot to the printer should be no harder than linking a robot used to load and unload a forging press.
Just some thoughts on your question "But what happens to the human workers?".
Without being flippant (I hope, it's not my intent), the answer is "the same thing that happened to candle makers, farriers, blacksmiths..." you get the idea.
All occupations are potentially vulnerable to being replaced by more efficient processes. We are all distressed by the short term (relatively) pain of the situation, but the long term result is that these workers are freed up for other endevours and the better process reduces the cost of the product which results in capital being freed up in another area which will provide new jobs.
The process is counter-intuitive, messy and often painfull. But it works better than any alternative to date. Some of those displaced will never adjust. Others will benefit from the situation that know nothing of what happened. However if we look at the sweep of history industrial/capital age we see overall human kind benefits from the increase in efficiency (compare poverty levels throughout history with the changes in the last few hundred years, capitalism/industrialization has reduced it from the norm in life to an exceptional condition).
Sorry for the lengthy run on this-obviously it is a hobby-horse of mine.
As everybody seems to agree, this is a logical progression of technology, which would imply that perhaps it doesn't deserve a patent, but it's far more deserving than, say, rounded corners on cell phones. I suspect that this system will probably be in the lab for some time to come if it's got multi-degree-of-freedom manipulators in the system. Those components are far more complex that the xyz print mechanisms inherent in typical 3D printers. For example, standard milling machine pricing goes up substatially when you add more than three axes because it becomes geometrically more dificult to maintain tolerances with each added DOF.
As for the model verification aspect of the patent, Stratasys already offers a 3D scanning system for turning real-world objects into 3D models that can be subsequently printed, so I'd expect iRobot's system to use the same tech for inspecting the parts for quality.
Overall, it sounds like the resulting product will be really complex and probably expensive, but I'd still love to work on the design and make it work. Sounds like an engineer's (at least to me) dream project.
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