Swarm 3D Printing Heralds Future of Lights-Out Manufacturing

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A number of firms have advocated for—and even carried out experiments in—collaborative 3D printing robots. However, few have brought a suite of 3D printing robots to market. Arkansas-based AMBOTS is one of the few exceptions.

Established in 2015, the firm is dedicated to swarm 3D printing, with AMBOTS as an acronym for “Autonomous Mobile roBOTS and Advanced Manufacturing roBOTS.” The company is led by Dr. Wenchao Zhou, founder and director of the AM3 Lab  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. This isn’t just a dual extruder slapped onto 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, the robots can perform pick-and-place assembly to create fully functional objects.

The company describes its methodology in this way:

“To ensure the speed of the 3D printing process is not limited by the size of the object, we developed a new chunk-based 3D printing method, which divides an object into smaller chunks to be printed individually. The chunk-based printing method keeps the 3D printing process localized and solves many issues that arise when the size of the object increases (e.g., warping issue, accuracy control, wait times). The chunk-based printing method has been validated in a tensile strength study, which showed the chunk-bond to be stronger than a regularly 3D printed part.”

To coordinate all of this activity, the company has created software that can take a 3D model, split it into smaller tasks and assign them to the various bots. They are then scheduled to finish their objectives sequentially and in parallel. The robots are powered by an electrified floor, enabling wireless energy generation. Other features in development include robots that perform tape-laying, screw driving, adhesive printing, and inkjetting.

AMBOTS’ technology is remarkable, to say the least. As we have seen by companies like Ocado, warehouse robots can now perform unprecedented sorting and retrieval tasks at blinding speeds. The grocery and robotics firm also 3D prints some 300 parts for its warehouse fleet using HP’s Multi Jet Fusion technology.

Divergent 3D has also developed an industrial robotic production platform, in which a collection of robotic arms collaborates to assemble 3D printed metal parts into a complete vehicle. Divergent CEO Kevin Czinger says that this fixtureless system can theoretically go from building a hypercar to building a drone with zero hardware modifications necessary.

It’s not hard to imagine that AMBOTS could scale its technology to create machines with a similar size to those used by Ocado or Divergent. Because AMBOTS also features 3D printed parts on its systems, we might envision them even duplicating themselves, finally fulfilling the RepRap dream of self-replicating 3D printers. Combined with Czinger’s technology and/or Ocado’s, the “lights-out factory” could finally be achieved.

Before we get to that point, of course, there are countless questions to ask. Is a self-replicating, lights-out factory something any rational, empathetic human actually wants? Not only are there the considerations about displacing workers and the possibility of an all-powerful artificial intelligence. We also have to think of the ecological consequences of an endless factory.

Global society already operates on a basis of 24/7 production-consumption, such that countries like China manufacture nearly everything for nations like the U.S. to the detriment of our planetary ecosystem and its interdependent inhabitants. And it does so in a nearly automated fashion, except that the inputs are human and ideological rather than robotic and code based. Even under the existing system, it has become almost impossible for the public to intervene in any meaningful way. The Paris Agreement is a case in point

The only difference between the existing system and a lights-out factory would be that it could potentially produce more stuff more quickly. This would, in turn, result in destroying the planet at an even faster pace, perhaps with even less opportunity for human intervention.

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