“Individuality is what drives humans.” – Wenchao Zhou
3D printing and robotics have been a match for decades, and they continue to have a future together in manufacturing. When it comes to the AMBOT project Wenchao Zhou, Lucas Marques and Austin Williams are creating, however, it’s less of a one-on-one deal and more of a swarm. Or perhaps you could consider it an entire construction crew as they complete intricate production tasks, perform assembly of items, use tools like screwdrivers and sharp instruments, weld, and even do some 3D printing of their own.
“Right now, we’re trying to figure out the minimum set of robots needed for a generic digital factory,” says Zhou, a professor of mechanical engineering at University of Arkansas and director of the AM3 Lab. There, Zhou, Marques, and Williams are cloistered away in an austere laboratory creating the future of 3D printing technology.
The team of young researchers understands the obvious potential for 3D printing in manufacturing. The benefits are immediately enticing, especially to larger companies and organizations around the world with vast resources like GE and NASA, all willing to jump in and try new brilliant new technology, along with encouraging their own scientists, researchers, engineers, interns, and collaborating students around the world. Greater speed in turnaround time of creating parts, the ability to design and manufacture all in one lab without a middleman, exponentially greater affordability in some cases, and rapid prototyping capabilities make 3D printing impossible to ignore.
But there are so many obstacles still too, and this is what the AM3 Lab wants to work past, creating even better options in scalability and speed, and streamline issues such as support structures that cause greater expense, inhibit efficiency, and are more inconvenient to deal with overall. This is magnified greatly when parts are being made for something massive like a military plane.
Their solution goes far beyond ‘thinking outside the box,’ as they built an autonomous (and mobile) 3D printing ‘vehicle’ able to work with a group of large and untold numbers so far. This is where the swarm comes in, as the robots come together like a crew to manufacture a plane or a house. The key, from Zhou’s point of view is to allow each piece to be completely customized.
AMBOTS was founded this year by Zhou, Marques, and Williams, and their goal is to create a mini-factory at Arkansas Research and Technology Park—and fill it with thousands of robots. Zhou has already worked in 3D printing for over ten years, with ongoing projects in more rudimentary robotics, progressing into what are now more sophisticated printbots, or AMBOTS.
Each robot is 80 percent 3D printed. The team had some fun with their features, creating colorful, different styles—each one with a unibody featuring the following:
- Chassis with a control panel
- Electrical circuits controlling the parts
- Wheels with rubber pads
- The Z stage, moving the tool head up and down
Each printbot each has a printer, filament spool, and an extruder.
“Manufacturing technology is a symbol of the level of human civilization,” says Zhou. “For most of human history, craftsmen customized products, be it clothes, shoes or even weapons. But today, everything is mass produced, due to cost. We want to change this. We want to build generalized, autonomous factories that can produce anything for anyone, on demand and inexpensively.”
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