Apr 8, 2016 | By Kira

German automation company Festo is back with another biologically-inspired robotics system, this time, in the form of a unique caterpillar-like 3D printing technology that can spin complex structures in midair from fiberglass resin.

Festo has become known over the years for taking design cues from the natural world and applying them directly to advanced robotic systems. These biomimetic technologies include the 3D printed BionicANTS, foot-long 3D printed insects capable of communicating wirelessly and performing group tasks. A jumping BionicKangaroo, eMotion Butterflies, and Smartbird Seagulls round out this robo-safari. 

For the 3D printing world, however, the 3D Cocooner may just be Festo’s most exciting invention yet. Its unique set-up, consisting of a vertically arranged tripod and robotic spinneret (the organ through which spiders, silkworms, and caterpillars produce and spin their thread), allows the 3D Cocooner to weave complex, free-standing, lattice-like 3D structures, rapidly and precisely, without the need for supports.

This is because, unlike in traditional, layer-by-layer additive manufacturing, the 3D Cocooner’s fiberglass resin is hardened in mid-air via an attached UV-curing light. Think of it as a larger-scale 3D printing pen, yet rather than being handheld, it is controlled via 3D modeling software and a technically precise robotic arm. (Another potentially comparable technology is the large-scale Mesh Mould 3D printer, intended for 3D construction and still under development).

The 3D Cocooner’s tripod handling system receives the parametrically designed 3D model data from a connected software program. The software not only displays the positional data, but also the handling system itself, allowing for the complete path-planning to be calculated in real time. “This direct path from the design to the production tool is very unusual in the current production environment,” explains Festo. “It is, however, an important prerequisite for customised manufacturing in the future.”

The extruded and cured 2mm fiberglass resin can be ‘spun’ into interconnected webs, taking on the same complex structures as natural cocoons. The filaments can also be re-directed, or cut and re-attached to other parts of the structure to form even more complex architectures, and the company claims that the finished objects demonstrate excellent tensile and bending strength.

“Just like a caterpillar, it spins filigree figures and customised lightweight structures from a fibreglass thread,” explained Dr Elias Knubben, Festo’s head of corporate bionic projects. “The spinneret is precisely controlled by means of a handling system. As soon as they leave the spinneret, the sticky fibreglass threads are laminated with UV-hardening resin and are joined together to form complex structures.”

Currently, the 3D Cocooner offers a construction space of 450 x 300 x 600 mm, and a print speed of 10 mm per second. Festo believes that the platform could be used to produce complex 3D shapes not possible with other production methods, and that in future, the lightweight, lattice-like structures could be covered in foil or fabrics to create solid, enclosed objects.

We have seen quite a few 3D printed technologies inspired directly by biological phenomena and the natural world, including this biomimetic 3D printed worm, a 3D printed chameleon that can actually change color to adapt to its surroundings, a 3D printed scorpion with active stinger, and over on the humanoid side, this incredible anthropomorphic 3D printed hand.

Festo’s 3D Cocooner, however, may just be one of the first biomimetic technologies to not only make use of3D printing, but to actually re-imagine how 3D objects can be built as they are in nature.

Festo’s 3D Cocooner will debut at the Hannover Messe trade show, taking place in Germany from April 25-29. Until then, check out the innovative, caterpillar-inspired Cocooner 3D printer in action below:



Posted in 3D Printing Technology



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