Students Develop 6-Axis Robotic 3D Printer Inspired by Spiderwebs


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Personally, I hate spiders. Even though they’re impressive, versatile creatures with a surprising amount of benefits to the environment and general circle of life, they’re just creepy. Walking into spiderwebs is always something of an unpleasant shock, and no wonder — those webs are strong and famously well-constructed.

extruded strands

A team of designers in Shanghai are also aware of the strength of spiderwebs, and managed to take a pretty creepy natural phenomenon and use it as inspiration in their workshop. During a recent 3-week “Digital Future” Shanghai Summer Workshop at the College of Architecture and Urban Planning at Tongji University, a team came up with what they called the Robotic 3D Spatial Printer. Under the direction of project instructor Yu Lei from Tsinghua, workshop leader Philip F. Yuan from Tongji, and software tutorial from Panagiotis Michalatos from GSD, the design team — consisting of Ji Shi in collaboration with Liu Xun, Luo Ruihua, and Cui Yuqi — developed the Robotic 6-Axis 3D Printer, which seeks “to eliminate the line between ‘Desigining’ and ‘Fabricating.'”

Team member Ji Shi, who expects to earn his BA in architecture this year, laid out the project on Behance as a three-phase concept. Shi wanted this project to harken back to the craftsmanship of days past that can so often seem lost in modern manufacturing environments.

printer“Digital fabrication technologies, like the application of industrial robot, has shown excellent performance in replacing human labor,” Shi noted. “However, the potential in designing has not been fully excavated and seemingly the more we involved in digital fabrication the deeper the gap between designing and producing exists. In this project what I am aiming to figure out is the way of integrating digital fabrication into designing as well as producing. It is more like the revival of craftsmanship in digital age. Factories only require technology showing capabilities in making things; but designers must arm themselves with technology that perform smart strategies outside the scope of replacing human labor.”

Strategy starts on the human side of the process, and the human side often requires a source of inspiration. Shi’s team turned to nature for their process. The development team noted:

“[I]n the project of Robotic 6-Axis 3D Printing, we developed a fabrication strategy learning and emulating the law of nature (referring to Chinese philosophy “师法自然 “). By studying the material and structure performance of 3D form in nature, we figured out a way to incorporate biomimetic fabrication strategy into 3D printing process. And by designing the special robotic-end effector (Tooling) and utilizing the great flexibility and accuracy of KUKA robotics, the biomimetic fabricating process has been fully realized.”

extruderWe’ve seen some very impressive projects utilizing KUKA robots, but this one might just take the cake for most inventive.

The first phase of the robotic project was the “Biomimetic Concept & Simulation,” wherein the designers were able to truly set their sights on specific goals. As the team noted in the project video (be sure to check it out at the bottom of this page), this was where the spiderweb inspiration came in.

“The spider thread is abstract as a linear material in the center with 3 separate and sinusoidal wave shape material attached beside. This change can reinforce the structure,” they noted.

The strength of a spiderweb comes not just from the careful weaving, but also from the thread itself, which the spider spins in a distinct shape — this shape could benefit a 3D printed self-supported structure. By incorporating the spindle-knot shape from nature, the team hoped to accomplish stronger, more durable printing potential than that from, say, a 3Doodler or other 3D printing pen that ‘draws’ in mid-air. This would let them go against gravity, as it were, which was exactly what they were looking for.

print head

“3D printing technology has great potential in future fabrication field,” they note, “however… This manufacturing process has limitations in spatial flexibility and fails to perform a fabrication structural strategy. It is because the current 3D printing technology mostly relies on the superimposition of thermoplastic ABS/PLA material along direction of gravity.”

printing statusWhile the team still utilized ABS in their printing, they approached the general theory differently in the second phase, “Design of the Printing Head (Robotic End-Effector).” Rather than traditional layer-by-layer extrusion, their Robotic 6-Axis 3D Printer mimics the spider thread’s micro-structure to create self-supporting objects. The printing end of the robotic device features a “peatloid turn-plate” with three printheads that move, as well as one central fixed printhead. The servo-powered system rotates the turn-plate, which leads the movable printheads to oscillate, creating the spindle-knot form that’s intended.

systemPhase three, “Design of External Digital Control System,” allows for control of the robotics. Their Arduino-based system includes four servos which work “like normal 3D printing devices” to drive the ABS delivery system, while one motor rotates the central turn-plate. Compressed air is sent via tubes to the printheads to cool and set the ABS once extruded, and each printhead has its own programmable heater to maintain the right extrusion temperatures. All of the motors and devices are controlled by switches on the “center stack” of the digital control system.

This entire project is incredibly impressive — especially when considering it was done in just three weeks over the summer. Ji Shi notes that it is still a work-in-progress, so thankfully that summer workshop was not just a blip on the radar for this robotic printer.

“Robotic 6 Axis 3D printing is a attempt of autonomous fabrication under digital tectonics,” said Shi. “I not only focused on the fabrication results but also its process. In some degree, Combing 3D printing techniques with robot is creative and the work we di d produced a tooling for future designers which can help them implement their idea quickly and easily, just like a craftsman.”

Be sure to check out the video below with more specific technical aspects of this project. What applications do you think such a machine might have, once refined? Let us know your reaction to this machine in the Robotic 6-Axis 3D Printing forum thread over at

robotic extrusion displayrobotic extrusion roomphases

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