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Human beings have been obsessed with self-replication and robotic technologies for centuries, even before the birth of the computer. The inception of computers and related technologies like 3D printing and artificial intelligence will soon make this goal of self-mimicry a reality in manufacturing. What is even more notable is that 3D printers, operated by robots, will reinvent the manufacturing world, achieving goals traditional manufacturing finds impossible. Robotic 3D printing is no longer a futuristic thought, with companies like Stratasys, Arevo Labs and MXD3 leading the way.
The term “robotic 3D printing” is both confusing and fascinating, but the future of humanity may very well depend on it.
To be clear, a 3D printer is not a robot. It’s a machine that receives inputs from a computer, and then creates physical objects based on digital blueprints by putting thin layers of raw material one on top of another. A robot also receives computer inputs, however, a robot interacts with the physical world through a sensing-learning-action feedback loop. A robot cannot only perform 3D printing (or additive manufacturing), but also many other actions such as moving objects and pushing buttons. More importantly, robots can “learn” from their past knowledge and modify their future actions to improve the “outcome.”
Therefore, a machine combining robotics and 3D printing can be far more powerful and efficient than any previous manufacturing technology. MX3D’s project to build a steel bridge in Amsterdam, using large-scale robotic 3D printing technology, is an impressive example.
So why is robotic 3D printing so important? Here are six major reasons:
- Robotic 3D printing allows for 5+ axis 3D printing: Multi-axis printing technology allows for printing more complex geometries with curved surfaces and without excessive supporting structures, thereby decreasing the complexity of post processing of the 3D printed product. This makes the printing process faster and decreases chance to err.
- Robotic 3D printing will allow for a 100% unmanned manufacture process: With superb sensory systems and near infinite learning capability, robots will eventually perform certain tasks much better than humans. For example, 3D printing quality control and post 3D printing processing are two labor intensive steps that may be eventually replaced with improved robotic control. Elimination of these steps will enable 100% unmanned manufacture process that makes products straight from digital design a reality.
- Robots can endure harsh environmental conditions: They can act as an extension of the civilization anywhere — from the Sahara desert, to the International Space Station, to Mars. Large-scale 3D printing in these locations to create human habitats, without the cost of human well-being, will be a determining factor to the success of colonization in space.
- Augmented sensory and motor capabilities allow for micro-scale tasks: Several robotic assisted surgical systems (such as Da Vinci surgical system) are currently available because of robot’s augmented sensory and motor capabilities. However, current “Robotic” surgery is a system where humans control tools through a minimally invasive (much smaller) incision. This system gives a more magnified view of the surgical field and multi-axis control of the surgical instrument. It is not truly robotic as the instruments do not work autonomously, but based on current (and planned future) programming, the futuristic potential is there. Using digital capabilities, sensory and motor systems, combined with 3D bio-printing and tissue repair capabilities, complete autonomous robotic surgery may no longer just be Hollywood movie magic.
- Robots can work 24/7 without any complaint: Paradoxically, humans’ initial intention to replace itself in the workplace is now considered a potential threat. Having a robotic 3D printing manufacturing workforce would impact thousands of lives, and cause significant changes, in the trillions of dollars, for the industries using them.
- Robots can self-perpetuate: In fact, as demonstrated by one company called RepRap, damaged robots can self-repair as well as replicate other robots. These 3D printing robots can potentially grow into a large labor force that is only limited to the availability of raw material and energy.
As both Elon Musk and Stephen Hawkings have announced to the world recently, it is almost inevitable that we need to explore other viable environments to continue to survive as a species. Having robotic 3D printing on board such expeditions is a necessity, as it can supply on-demand services both within and outside of the spaceship, where the condition is often fatal to human. Robots are already integral parts of space expeditions. If expeditions are currently considered almost certainly “fatal” based on Elon Musk’s recent presentation, it will make sense to send robots to these hazardous destinations first, as an experiment.
With robotic 3D printing, we can also create physical objects at the destinations that will allow for a safer landing, inhabiting, and eventual colonization before humans even arrive. During a manned expedition, however, robotic 3D printing can create a multitude of on-demand parts and tools for the unpredictable journeys by carrying raw 3D printing material, increasing fuel efficiency and solving the “storage challenge” in a confined space like a spaceship for a long journey to Mars. With advancements in robotic surgery and bio-printing, on-board surgeries, and even childbirth, could be possible within the foreseeable future. within a reasonable range of time.
With all the benefits aside, however, it is worrisome that perhaps the most immediate adaptation of robotic 3D printing, and robotic manufacture in general, is aimed at replacing human workers, the very subjects machines are made to serve. Considering the ethical and societal implications of an autonomous workforce that can self-perpetuate, robotic 3D printing must be carefully examined and regulated.