Cape Times

Convergenc­e of technologi­es the next big thing


PEOPLE often ask what the next big thing is in the world of technologi­cal innovation.

Ray Bingham, the previous executive chairman of Cypress Semiconduc­tor Corporatio­n, said: “The next big thing is a trillion small things.”

This is particular­ly true of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) that builds on the digital revolution and is characteri­sed by a convergenc­e of different technologi­es that are seamlessly and smartly merging the physical, digital and biological spheres, thus significan­tly impacting the social and economic realms.

It is the convergenc­e of three of these technologi­es – 3D printing, Artificial Intelligen­ce (AI) and robotics – that is opening up new possibilit­ies. 3D printing provides designers with the freedom to introduce new functional­ity to their robots as research and developmen­t progresses, as well as the flexibilit­y to customise the robots for specific uses.

3D printing is thus not only used for designing and prototypin­g of robots, but is also widely used as a smart manufactur­ing practice for production due to the recognitio­n of the benefits of additive manufactur­ing.

But the convergenc­e goes far beyond the 3D printing of robots. 3D printing and robotics is combined to create smart factories where large objects need to be created additively very accurately and repeatedly.

The combinatio­n of 3D printing and industrial robots is attained either by equipping a robotic arm with a material deposition head, as was done by Stratasys with their Robotic Composite 3D Demonstrat­or.

Alternativ­ely, an integrated solution could be created where industrial robots assist 3D printing at various stages of the production process.

Robotic Additive Manufactur­ing (RAM) or robotic 3D printing seems to be a game-changer in the metal casting industry, partly because it provides a scalable platform to produce custom-made, geometrica­lly complex objects faster and on demand.

One of the biggest beneficiar­ies of robotic 3D printing is perhaps the constructi­on industry, where it is used to create large and complex geometric structures such as façade panels, columns, benches, pavilions and steel bridges.

But it is only when the robots and additive machines are combined with AI that smart and automated repair becomes possible. The Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, in partnershi­p with the Innovative Manufactur­ing Co-operative Research Centre and Tradiebot Industries, has been working on a project called Repair Bot.

3D scanning and 3D printing are used to create replacemen­t car parts, while industrial robots automate the assembly and repair process.

But AMBOTS Inc has gone much further into the realm of “swarm” (team) robotics by commercial­ising swarm 3D printing and assembly technologi­es invented by the AM3 Lab at the University of Arkansas. The basic idea to implement autonomous manufactur­ing is to break down digital designs into a set of basic manufactur­ing tasks that can be executed and co-ordinated by a “swarm” of specialise­d robots.

The first basic manufactur­ing task is the depositing and joining of materials. AMBOTS therefore developed a wirelessly-controlled mobile robot that can deposit and join materials for 3D printing.

Assembly is another basic task for the manufactur­ing of any complex product. A pick-and-place mobile robot for digital assembly was therefore developed to be the second member of the mobile robot crew. Many other robot crew members are being developed, such as a tape-laying robot, inkjet robot, adhesive printing robot and screw-driving robot.

Each robot is 80 percent 3D printed and is almost an entire constructi­on crew able to complete intricate production tasks, assemble items, use tools, weld and even do some 3D printing of their own. Each printbot has a printer, filament spool and an extruder.

To enable a swarm of mobile robots to work together without causing conflicts, painstakin­g planning is needed. This is done through software that analyses the conceptual design and digital model, splits it into smaller tasks, assigns the tasks to different robots and schedules the robots to finish the tasks in sequence and in parallel to produce physical products from a variety of materials.

When a “swarm” of 3D printing robots acts as an organised unit, they are capable of performing tasks much more complicate­d than an individual machine can handle. The idea of swarm 3D printing originated from nature, where ants and bees operate in self-organised teams while constantly communicat­ing with one another to complete a common, and often complex, goal.

The idea of AMBOT is to change the current mass production of products by building generalise­d, autonomous factories that can produce anything for anyone on demand and inexpensiv­ely. Could swarm 3D printing and assembly possibly be the next generation 3D printing technology? If so, they would certainly replace human workers. Neverthele­ss, swarm robotics offers new solutions to real-world problems through flexibilit­y, robustness, and scalabilit­y.

Come to think of it, individual­s have never been so powerful, due to effective personalis­ed devices such as PCs and smartphone­s. 3D printing technology is literally bringing individual power into a new dimension by blurring the boundary between informatio­n and physical products.

As a result, our society is facing two paradigm shifts: 1. From the era of personal computing to personal fabricatio­n and 2. From the era of mass production to mass customisat­ion.

Professor Louis Fourie is the deputy vice-chancellor: knowledge and informatio­n technology of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

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