Watching an object being 3D-printed is a spectacle to behold; the speed at which intricate geometries unfold before your eyes is enough for anyone to reckon that this is the future of manufacturing. While both consumer-grade models and more advanced versions are capable of whipping up objects made from different materials, each with their own aesthetic and subsequent properties, the scale of what can be fabricated is entirely based on the size of the printer at use. For this reason, a research team based out of Siemens’ Corporate Technology’s Princeton campus has developed mobile 3D printers in the shape of spiders, which are both autonomous and capable of working in sync to expedite the printing process.
PSFK spoke with Siemens’ Director of R&D of Engineering Livio Dalloro on why the team decided to shape their printers like spiders, the implications such a technique might have on the industry, and how Siemens sees the device unfolding in the foreseeable future.
Dalloro explains that Siemens holds an event where its employees can step up and present their future-forward pitches to the rest of the company, after which everyone votes for the most progressive idea and the winning team gets to bring its vision to life.
“The department kicked out an initiative for seed funding which allows any one of our scientists and engineers to come out with an idea in the back of their minds. Maybe they’ve been thinking about realizing it but they never had the chance, funding, time, etc… This provides crucial resources within the team to do so,” he says. “One of the engineers within my team came out with a pitch saying ‘we do a lot of work with 3D printing, it would be nice to combine it with our work in automation.’ After the voting phase, we got selected to implement that idea.”
The spider-shaped robots, dubbed SiSpis, contain what Dalloro calls a seventh ‘augmented leg’ responsible solely for printing materials. What’s interesting about them beyond their mobility is the fact that they operate synchronously to tackle a print. In other words, after you input a rendered CAD drawing, the bots break it down among themselves to determine which bot is responsible for printing which part. This is done based on their current location relative to the shape of the final print, what materials are necessary and how many bots are operating on the same project. Because they work on batteries, when one spider is running low on juice it can crawl back to a charging station while the others reconfigure to accommodate for having one less bot on site.
Whereas in the past, a car, house, or other seemingly large article might require a large printer (even bigger than the size of what’s being built), SiSpis offers a quicker and more efficient alternative that doesn’t need to be reconstructed or transported once something has been made within it. Its this solution in the first place that inspired the design.
“What was exciting for us with this spider-like shape is that it allows us to think about very large structures that we can build. Part of the challenge is, what happens when you create the base of the structure, and you need to get to higher elevations? How do you get there? We’d need something capable of climbing—so we thought to ourselves, what can actually do that? Well… spiders can climb easily, can’t they?”
Currently the team has been exploring different types of movements to optimize exactly how the spiderbots scale and maneuver across various surfaces and slopes. The entire process is a ‘cross-pollination of innovation’ as Dalloro calls it, spanning many disciplines that each individual brings to the team. From knowledge in kinematics to localization to data mapping, alongside the pre-requisite of familiarity with additive manufacturing, an expansive diversity of fields is required to develop these spiderbots.
“So far this has been a fantastic moonshot project for us” states Dalloro excitedly. “As you can imagine, it involves several engineers and scientists from different backgrounds collaborating unitarily to see it through. I don’t want to call out exactly what future capabilities of SiSpis might be” he adds, since he believes that technology evolves so rapidly and the team is not in a stage where it can make these sort of predictions, “but we are making it modular so different features can always be added on later. For now, there’s a long way to go, but we’re really excited about how everything will turn out.”
The idea of automating and mobilizing 3D printing technology is an entirely new concept within the industry, so much work is required before SiSpis is ready to start building outside the lab. The whole notion of networking 3D printers to collaborate on something bigger than themselves is as farfetched as it is fascinating.
by IDO LECHNER