A number of companies have advocated – and even experimented with – collaborative 3D printing robots. However, few have brought a suite of 3D printing robots to market. Based in Arkansas AMBOTS is one of the few exceptions.
Founded in 2015, the company is dedicated to swarm 3D printing, with AMBOTS as an acronym for “Autonomous Mobile roBOTS and Advanced Manufacturing roBOTS”. The company is managed by Dr Wenchao Zhoufounder and director of A M3 Laboratory at the University of Arkansas.
So far, AMBOTS has developed a very unique technology, in which multiple thermoplastic extrusion robots work together to 3D print the same object. It’s not just a dual extruder glued to a RepRap. These are multiple separate extruders that can be picked up and moved by mobile robots around a miniature factory floor to print the object. More than that, robots can perform pick-and-place assembly to create fully functional objects.
The company describes its methodology as follows:
“To ensure that the speed of the 3D printing process is not limited by the size of the object, we have developed a new piece-based 3D printing method, which breaks an object into smaller pieces to be printed individually. The block-based printing method keeps the 3D printing process localized and solves many problems that arise when the object size increases (eg warping problem, precision control, latency) . The piece-based printing method was validated in a tensile strength study, which showed that the bonding of the pieces was stronger than a regular 3D printed part.
To coordinate all of this activity, the company created software that can take a 3D model, split it into smaller tasks, and assign them to different bots. They are then programmed to complete their goals sequentially and in parallel. The robots are powered by a electrified floor, enabling wireless power generation. Other features in development include robots that perform tape laying, screwing, adhesive printing and inkjet.
AMBOTS technology is remarkable to say the least. As we’ve seen with companies like Ocado, warehouse robots can now perform unprecedented sorting and retrieval tasks at blazing speeds. The grocery and robotics company is also 3D printing some 300 parts for its warehouse fleet using HP’s Multi Jet Fusion technology.
Divergent 3D has also developed an industrial robotic production platform, where a collection of robotic arms work together to assemble 3D printed metal parts into a complete vehicle. Divergent CEO Kevin Czinger says this device-less system can theoretically go from building a hypercar to building a drone with no hardware modifications needed.
It is not difficult to imagine that AMBOTS could evolve its technology to create machines of a similar size to those used by Ocado or Divergente. Since AMBOTS also offers 3D printed parts on its systems, we could even imagine them replicating, finally realizing RepRap’s dream of self-replicating 3D printers. Combined with technology from Czinger and/or Ocado, the “extinguished factory” could finally see the light of day.
Before we get to that, of course, there are countless questions to ask. Is a self-replicating, extinct factory something every rational, empathetic human actually wants? Not only are there considerations of worker displacement and the possibility of all-powerful artificial intelligence. We must also think about the ecological consequences of an endless factory.
Global society already operates on a 24/7 production-consumption basis, so countries like China manufacture almost everything for nations like the United States to the detriment of our planetary ecosystem and its interdependent inhabitants. And it does this almost automatically, except the inputs are human and ideological rather than robotic and code-based. Even under the current system, it has become almost impossible for the public to intervene in any meaningful way. The Paris Agreement is a good example
The only difference between the existing system and a factory without lights would be that it could potentially produce more stuff faster. This in turn would cause the planet to be destroyed at an even faster rate, perhaps with even less opportunity for human intervention.
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