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Summary:

They can build some amazing stuff, from chairs to artwork seemingly suspended in mid air. But the average user has to build a robotic printer themselves if they want to use one.

Mataerial 3D printer
photo: Mataerial

Robotic arm 3D printers are cool. Really cool. Instead of printing within a box, they can build towering structures. They also aren’t limited to the layer-by-layer approach of the average consumer printer; they’re freeform. They’re common in manufacturing, but why aren’t there any available to the average 3D printer user? A few experts offered up their opinion.

Cornell engineering professor and “Fabricated” author Hod Lipson:

Because gantry systems (the static metal rods that guide print heads in 3D printers like MakerBots) are simpler, cheaper and more accurate than a robotic arm, especially for linear motion. Robotic arms have advantages for printing larger objects, e.g. see the work being done on architectural scale printing at Loughborough printed with a robotic arm.

Harvard biologically inspired engineering professor Jennifer Lewis:

Robotic arms are typically viewed as less safe. They can swing rapidly in any direction, etc. They often require some type of cage or shield to safeguard against injury. Six-axis motion control is also more expensive, typically. Clearly, these types of robots are widely used in traditional manufacturing, so there is no fundamental reason why that platform type could not be used for 3D printing.

Shapeways CEO Peter Weijmarshausen:

One of the key challenges of bringing high quality 3D printing to a mainstream audience is the cost associated with using industrial grade 3D printers. The machines deliver amazing capabilities and quality, but the process is still expensive. Robotic arms can help automate repetitive labor operations and are definitely something we’ll consider implementing once our factories get larger and more automated. It would not surprise me if robotics and robotic arms help us achieve our goal of making 3D printing affordable.

So these types of machines could soon become more prevalent among the big 3D printing companies. No one has tackled it at the consumer level yet, but, given some added safety measures, it’s not too crazy of an idea. Many of the hacks and build jobs that led to current robotic arm 3D printers were accomplished by artists, and those bots don’t look dangerous to be around. Considering the success of the 3Doodler, a more freeform 3D printer option could appeal to a lot of people.

  1. Just my opinion, but…

    I looked into doing a similar machine using both methods not that long ago. A gantry is simple to build and runs pretty much forever at high accuracy as long as you can run a few rods reasonably straight and parallel and do a rack and pinion. A robot arm requires a much higher manufacturing precision and has maintenance issues over time because the contact area is much smaller.

    So a robot arm is fundamentally a good way to go but difficult.

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  2. Reblogged this on joshua felts rn and commented:
    I’m amazed 3D printers exist . . . They’re awesome!

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  3. brucethomson361504244 Thursday, August 22, 2013

    Good idea. ‘Seems to be a matter of anchoring – to get the precision. But I think you’re right. The current limit to the space of a small box is a serious obstacle we’ll soon want to get rid of, and if we have to think of a way to get superb anchoring, that’s what we’ll do. Any ideas?

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