Virginia Tech Lab Builds an All-in-One 3D Printing Work Cell

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What if there was a machine that could print any vehicle from scratch? Not just the chassis, but also the batteries, motors, and circuit boards in one go? Would a machine like that be possible? Well, a group at Virginia Tech’s (VT) Design, Research, and Education for Additive Manufacturing Systems (DREAMS) Lab is trying to make that a reality. The team recently released a paper in Additive Manufacturing Letters detailing an automated fabrication work cell that combines 3D printing and robotic assembly. This setup could create any robotic vehicle imagined and may remove the need for human intervention entirely.  

The project at VT, under Dr. Christopher Williams, has been brewing for a few years, but fully ignited when a group of undergrads wanted to 3D print a drone and then fly it off the build plate when done. While 3D printing all of the components proved difficult, the group sidestepped that question and asked, “is there a way to print 90% of the drone and then utilize robotic assembly to incorporate the remaining 10%?”

The answer? Yes. 

Prof. Williams’ Lab had already developed many of the individual elements needed to make this idea a reality, and now, all the group had to do was put the pieces together. That was no easy task, and the undergrads trialed numerous methods to find which combination would work the best. The team ultimately landed on a robotic arm that gave them the freedom in movement they desired and allowed them to easily transition from 3D printing to assembly and vice versa.

Team leader Tadek Kosmal works with the team as the robotic arm prints a drone chassis.

Team leader, Tadek Kosmal, working with colleagues. (Source: Virginia Tech)

“The flexibility of robotic arms allows us to change tools mid-print so that we can place foreign objects such as motors, batteries, and wires into the object while it is being printed,” Williams said. “This provided us with a path to fabricating complete functional mechatronic assemblies in a single robotic work cell.”

Over the next several months, the students tweaked their work cell little by little until they exorcized all of the bad code, bad prints, and bad assemblies out of their machine. After the countless hours spent debugging, they finally had their first successful print and launch on April 25th, 2022

The DREAMS team celebrated their gold medal quickly, and are already designing version 2.0. 

Their new set up will attempt to incorporate larger robots and synchronize them into a “mechanical ballet”. They hope to increase the sizes of the prints and build them as efficiently as possible. 

The larger robot prints a drone chassis while its bank of tools awaits deployment.

Version 2.0 of their work cell using a larger robot to print a drone. (Source: Virginia Tech)

“I think this project speaks to the future of additive manufacturing,” said Williams. “It is time to move beyond printing static parts in premade boxes and time to start thinking of ways to integrate 3D printing technology into advanced manufacturing workflows to enable the creation of truly multifunctional products.”

There is a lot of potential with this work cell and could immediately be used to make reconnaissance vehicles for unmanned missions on Mars and here on Earth. Time will tell if this machinery will be the Tchaikovsky of the additive manufacturing world, but even if it is only an Adolphe Adam, it would still be groundbreaking for the field of 3D printing and assembly.

The full peer reviewed article can be found here. This project received an initial $75,000 from the NASA University Student Research Challenge and was followed by an additional $40,000 in funding from Boeing, Braskem, Cube Pilot, KDE Direct, Northrop Grumman, RoboDK, Stäubli, and Xoar.

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