Arkansas-based AMBOTS is continuing its work in automated production, essentially creating a small-scaled demo of the possibility of lights-out manufacturing with 3D printing and other technologies. In its latest work, the company has programmed a series of robots to manufacture and assemble a mini electrical vehicle, which drives off of a factory floor upon completion.
A Mini Autonomous 3D Printing Factory
In the demonstration, a 3D printing bot first fabricates the frame for an electric vehicle, while another prints a cover plate. Throughout the process, transport robots move printers once they have completed their tasks to 3D print other components. Once the printing is complete, a pick-and-place bot is transported in to perform the assembly.
It picks up and drops pre-manufactured wheels with attached motors, as well as pre-made battery and microcontroller, into the recently printed frame. Dr. Wenchao Zhou, Co-founder & CTO of AMBOTS and founder and director of the AM3 Lab at the University of Arkansas, told 3DPrint.com that these non-printed components are manually built from off-the-shelf parts.
“The electrical connection was made using copper tape. We have just developed a printhead that can print copper tape, but it is not used for this demo (maybe in the next demo we will incorporate a copper tape printer),” Zhou said.
The transport bot then moves the pick and place to recover the printed cover, which it drops atop the vehicle to complete the assembly. Next, a laser bot is brought into the workspace to cure the alignment pins that bond all of the parts. The printer is introduced once more to create a top layer before the car drives off of the factory floor.
The Goal of AMBOTS
Zhou was able to elaborate on the vision for the company, which is to develop what AMBOTS refers to as “general-purpose factories (GPFs), in contrast to the special-purpose factories (SPFs) we have today, since Henry Ford first introduced assembly line in 1913.” he explained that SPFs have resulted in several critical challenges that he hopes GPFs may helped to address. Zhou outlined these issues as follows:
“1. Supply chain security: In the current manufacturing paradigm, when a new product needs to be mass-produced (e.g., Tesla Model 3), a special-purpose factory (SPF) often needs to be designed and built based on specified product dimensions, production capacity, and a set of manufacturing processes to manufacture and assemble the product, which typically relies on other SPFs for supplying components. This often leads to high dependencies between factories and long supply chains that are often distributed across the globe, making it challenging to secure a supply chain against disruptions, such as those caused by pandemics, natural disasters, and geopolitical events. In addition, the high cost of establishing new SPFs and securing supply chains is a significant barrier to bringing new products to market, especially for small businesses, reducing the pace of product innovation.
2. Coupling of factory life cycle with product life cycle: Due to the setup of the current manufacturing paradigm with SPFs, the factory life is often tightly coupled with the life of the product. When the life of a product comes to an end, which has seen a steady decrease to a few years and sometimes to a few months due to rapid market changes, the SPF for manufacturing the product often ceases to exist due to the loss of financial support, either re-purposed, or reconfigured, or sometimes completely discarded. This often leads to the loss of certain production capabilities, which may result in a discontinuity for human civilization. For example, NASA lost critical suppliers after the Apollo program, which has caused challenges for going back to the moon. Another example is that the data we saved on floppy disks a few decades ago can no longer be easily retrieved due to the loss of suppliers for floppy disk drivers.
3. Extraterrestrial civilization If humans were to become a multi-planetary civilization, it will be difficult the replicate all the factories and the complex supply chains in different industries outside of earth.”
Zhou describes GPFs as a collection of robotic manufacturing units capable of basic production abilities, like “material deposition, energy deposition, assembly, deformation, cleaning, and local atmosphere control.” The robotic modules circulate the factory and react to the environment to perform manufacturing. The AMBOTS CTO explains, “These units can freely move across the factory floor and reorganize themselves in different groups for different purposes, intelligently adapting their production capability to different product dimensions, production capacities, and a set of manufacturing processes by adding or removing units from the groups.”
Such a model is meant to address the issues presented by SPFs in that a GPF can be replaced or reconfigured to produce different items, ensuring a secure, local, and resilient supply chain. Additionally, a completely new factory wouldn’t need to be made to introduce new products to market. Zhou also says that a “GPF fundamentally decouples factory life from product life as it no longer depends on financial support from specific products. As a result, a GPF can evolve and preserve the production capabilities in digital form and, thus, the continuity of civilization (we lose part of our civilization when we lose the production capability).” It would also be easier to replicate some GPFs off-Earth, with a GPF representing a carrier of human production capabilities.
The Feasibility of an Autonomous 3D Printing Factory
The video is fascinating to watch, as it is an actual realization of the “factory of the future” that has been imagined in sci-fi books, magazines, and movies for decades. It’s hard not to be wowed by the scene and even project personalities onto the equipment as it moves. More importantly, however, we have to ask whether or not this can be applied to practical tasks or scaled for true manufacturing.
Interestingly, the vehicle that is created in the video resembles the bots that are used to carry the manufacturing equipment around the shop floor. So, depending on the complexity of those systems, it could be possible to fabricate them with AMBOTS technology. The grid floor that directs the workers around the area is not dissimilar to the method that Ocado uses to shuttle its sorting robots around its massive grocery warehouses. We also know that Divergent Technologies has developed a manufacturing cell outfitted with industrial robotic arms for assembling the company’s 3D printed hypercar. Nano Dimension seems to be creating the technology for 3D printing and assembling complete electronics, as well.
So, all in all, it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility to scale up what looks to be a work area the size of an office cubicle to the size of an actual factory. This is especially true if AMBOTS were to partner with or receive investment from a large, interested party. It certainly seems like something that the military giants in the AM Forward consortium would be interested in, so it’s not hard to imagine the startup getting a government grant or two to build on the technology.
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