Sep 23, 2016 | By Nick

A new 3D printing robotic arm could open up an exciting world of composite production and +LAB has taken inspiration from the silkworm to make the Atropos a reality.

Essentially the new print mechanism doesn’t 3D print the fiber itself, instead it uses an existing fiber soaked in a resin solution that sets instantly with the help of UV light as it leaves the print head. This gives us the opportunity to make precise shapes, structures and combinations of different fibers that we simply couldn’t achieve with traditional 3D printing.

Technically we can use almost any fiber that can work with the resin, so there are potentially a huge number of combinations that we haven’t even considered yet and a simple fiber that we have used for hundreds of years could take on massive significance and wholly new mechanical properties when combined with the resin.

Right now the team is using fibers containing glass and basalt, but they’re working hard on carbon and polyaramide fibers. It is even starting to work with bamboo and epoxy resins to make a number of different combinations for specific tasks. There’s an awful lot of testing ahead, but this has the potential to change 3D printing as we know it.

It also means we don’t need molds, which could be a huge advantage for bespoke creations and constantly evolving designs. Even though 3D printing means we can create specific molds quickly, if we can remove the need for them then that will streamline the production and in some cases R&D processes even further.

The team, made up of researchers from KUKA, Owens Corning and +LAB, will now set to work on practical applications for this new 3D printer. Different isn’t always better, so this is not a solution that will work in every case and it certainly won’t render every other 3D printer redundant. In certain instances, though, this new production method will give a real competitive advantage and the team will now work hard to identify useful markets and work with the specialists to refine the process even further.

Some of nature’s simplest animals have inspired some of the greatest feats of engineering in recent times. One recent example was Airbus adopting a natural cellular structure to strip weight from the bulkhead of its planes, but engineering is full of ideas taken from the lowliest animals on the planet.

Now the humble silkworm and spiders have inspired a six-axis robotic arm that moves fluidly in space and prints a continuous, thermosetting fiber that is instantly cured. With this simple concept, the team has opened up exciting opportunities to create composite materials with specific characteristics in terms of strength, flex and more. Artists have even shown an interest in the 3D printer’s potential.

Atropos is one of the three Moirai in Greek mythology and ironically the name means Unturnable, which is pretty much the polar opposite of a six-axis robotic arm that can sweep fluidly through space to trace almost any shape we can imagine. It’s controlled by a series of algorithms and essentially fibers are soaked in a reservoir of resin on their way to the print head.

A UV source photocures the resin in the fiber instantaneously and that means that the team can lay down anything from a single fiber in a specific shape to a complex mesh or even a tightly wound coil to create the mechanical properties that each application requires. It’s just as capable of creating solid structures, too, as the video demonstrates.

Shear strength can be a real problem with traditional 3D printing and we can find ourselves overengineering the product in terms of thickness or using a more expensive and complex filament to prevent breakage. This new technique means we could 3D print by overlapping the filament and using the finished product’s own structure to provide shear resistance on a number of different planes.

By winding a filament up and down a product’s length we can end up with a thinner, stronger product and that could be useful across the board.

The whole process begins in Rhinoceros’ 3D modeling software and then uses a graphical algorithms editor, Grasshopper, and KUKAIprc to create the data for the print head’s path and motion speed. It’s designed to be simple enough for any competent 3D printer to make the most of the robotic arm and we’re curious to see how this one develops.

It’s clearly a high-end print solution for specific commercial applications. But that’s the beauty of innovation like this, you never really know where it’s going to end up.



Posted in 3D Printing Technology



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