Additive Manufacturing Strategies

Branch Technology 3D Prints Large-Scale ABS Sculpture

ST Medical Devices

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Branch Technology is one of a number of companies using industrial robotic arms to perform large-scale 3D printing. Previously, we showed you how the company made walls and how they’ve just last week announced $11 million in funding. Branch 3D prints lightweight cellular structures, similar to AI Build, which could—by themselves or in combination with panels or as reinforcement for concrete structures—be used for construction with significantly less material than with other processes.

The firm recently announced that, together with designer Alkanoglu, they made an art piece for the Durham Main County Library, The company uses six-axis Kuka robots on a rail to extrude carbon-filled ABS filament. The artwork is 8 meters by 4 meters by 5 meters,

Melody Rees,  Director of Design and Project Management at Branch Technology, said of the project, “The geometry of this design is very complex, and we had to create some new algorithms and establish unique capabilities, but our team of computer scientists and robotic experts was excited about this task,”

The designer Alkanoglu said, “In the majority of my previous work, I have achieved very complex designs using traditional materials such as metal or timber, but with advancements of 3D printing at the scale of a building, it opens up a whole new set of possibilities for our built environment.”

The company says that:

“Utilizing a fleet of 6-axis robots, the project was 3D printed with carbon and ABS filament within a few weeks at the company’s advanced manufacturing facility. The 3D print consists of structural cells forming a large space frame structure.”

It’s good to see 3D printing being used in the wild to make structures. It’s been 11 years since designer Dirk van der Kooij first used a robot arm to build functional furniture and, since then, a number of firms have done the same. CEAD’s approach is similar to Branch, but CEAD uses continuous carbon fiber and other filaments, resulting in much stronger structures. Colussus is a containerized version of a similar system. Stratasys’ Infinite Build used an eight-axis machine. Thermwood has a rail-based approach for its technology. Cincinnati’s BAAM system is similar to Thermwood. Arevo focuses on carbon fiber, and Impossible Objects does as well.

Applications are a bit different, with AI Build and Branch focusing on art and sandwiched parts, while CEAD, Cincinnati and Thermwood create more formwork and molds, and the others focus on finer parts. Meanwhile, a size smaller we have a whole host of medium-format 3D printing companies such as Juggerbot3D. At the same scale as Branch, we also have a lot of 3D printed construction companies that are directly 3D printing concrete, such as Cy.Be, COBOD, and Peri.

Many of these firms use as the heart of their machine architecture robots by KUKA, ABB, Yaskawa, Fanuc, Staubli, and Kawasaki. By far the most critical, expensive and difficult components to make in this whole process are the six-axis robot arms themselves. These industrial robot manufacturers are also very highly technical and have revenues in the billions of dollars.

Yaksawa showed off a printer at IMTS in 2018 and Fanuc did so in 2015.

Mostly these large companies have showcased 3D printing as something that they’re interested in or think is fun. Lately, however ABB unveiled its new PowerPac.

Along with RobotStudio software, the PowerPac is optimized for 3D printing and allows customers to easily submit files for printing with the system. This begs the question, will all of these 3D printing companies that rely on robotic arm be swallowed up by the big robot arm manufacturers themselves? Or will they all have formal alliances with one of a few partners? Or will the likes of Staubli all come up with their own 3D printing offering?

Its clear that both concrete and large scale polymer 3D printing could help them enter new markets as well as service existing customers. At the moment, there probably just doesn’t seem to be enough traction and investment for the bigger players to get involved. But, once they do, what will they do?

If I were a Fanuc or Yaskawa, I’d develop my own technologies and offer it on the market. If I had a strong channel in Systems Integrators, I might work directly with them to have them offer multiple solutions based on my core suite offering, which is what ABB seems to be doing. For a robot arm company, a joint venture with BAM would make more sense than buying a startup at this stage, especially if it came with another JV partner such as Saint Gobain.

Since the construction industry tends to be local and have a strong local regulatory burden, the “I control it all” and “superstar JV approach” would seem to be the most fruitful paths forward. Invest in regulatory and find revenue in a few markets and then build critical mass to perhaps later expand would be the same path for both and would get you the most bang for your buck. Unless, of course, you think that construction should be totally local and then just pitch it over the hedge to your resellers and systems integrators.

Or do you think that there is another way? Do you think that pure play 3D printing construction start ups with robot arms will survive and even thrive independently?

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