Jun 23, 2016 | By Alec

3D printing is often hailed as the future of manufacturing, but right now a 3D printing farm – with numerous 3D printers working in unison – is one of the only ways to 3D print batches of a reasonable size. And that has one major limitation: it requires a lot of hands-on attention to operate a farm at any decent speed. But Oregon startup Tend.ai might have a solution. They have built the first fully automated 3D printing farm, operated by a robotic arm that uses low-cost electronics to monitor all printing activities and operate the 3D printers.

It’s quite a remarkable setup. As you can see in the clip below, one single robot arm easily operates ten 3D printers, pushing buttons and removing the final components from the printbeds. These are boxed and subsequently pushed down a conveyor belt. Using nothing more than a webcam, it reads each 3D printer’s display just like you or I would. Once registering that prints are complete, it knows what buttons to push and when to remove prints. Most remarkable is that the robot should be compatible with just about any 3D printer, without the need for significant modifications.

This is especially impressive because the robot’s creators have only been working on their product since February. But as Tend.ai’s founders Mark Silliman, Robert Kieffer and James Gentes revealed, all of them have an extensive background in robotic or software development. “We're a mix. I've been involved in open source robotics for years while founding various software startups (previous was acquired in December 2015). Robert Kieffer is a developer previously at Facebook & Google with an electrical engineering background. James Gentes has a software security background from Symantec,” Silliman told 3ders.org. “All three of us have founded companies that were acquired. Therefore we're our own investors to date.”

Together, they have been working on this remarkable robot since then. Inspiration was found in a local 3D printing farm, run by a friend who produces custom cookie cutters for Etsy. “AKA she's running to her garage every 5 minutes, all day to keep the process going,” Silliman explains. There must be an easier way to operate such a farm, and as it happens the Tend.ai team was working on a special software solution that provides robots with the ability to tend to any type of machine – even 3D printers.

Below: Mark Silliman.

What they came up with is impressive. In a nutshell, it’s an ai-based solution that reads the machine’s display and performs all the tasks a human would. “Tend.ai never requires you to modify or network your machines,” Silliman explains. Everything is preconfigured, and any smart device can be used to control and monitor the robot. Capable of being used with a wide variety of robots, webcams and grippers – depending on the situation – it’s a perfect situation for any machine-based production setup. In fact, the same setup visible above could easily tend to more than 30 3D printers if necessary.

As Silliman explained, the core of the Tend.ai setup relies on machine learning principles, essentially making it a self-learning contraption. “It literally improves by tending thousands of customers and learning from all of them / sharing the learned data,” he explains. But there were quite a few hurdles to overcome when realizing Tend.ai. Especially building a setup that can run 24/7 – which is where the added value is – was difficult to build. “That's why the ‘brain’ of your system needs to fully understand machines and have the ability to troubleshoot. For example: If filament is left on the print bed after unloading, our system can identify this and goes into a ‘clean mode’ and start removing the filament,” he says.

This initial 3D printing setup is just a preview of things to come. In the near future, Tend.ai will kick off a beta program aimed at makerspaces and other production farms to start exploring the possibilities of their system. After that, they’re envisioning subscription-based services. “Between machine learning, computer vision and all the varying types of machines, 3D printing and beyond, out there we have plenty to do. We'll be hiring very soon,” they say. “Tend wants people to experiment with robots and share their automation processes similar to how people share their designs on Thingiverse and beyond.” Right now, the team is aiming for a 2018 release. When combined with a solid 3D printing interface, this could become a force to be reckoned with.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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