MIT Developing 'One-Stop-Shop' Robot-Building 3D Printer

MIT CSAIL's 'LaserFactory' automates the full process for making functional devices in one system.
Chris Young

Though 3D printers have the capacity to build even life-saving components in a relatively short period of time, they lack the ability to fabricate more complex devices such as functional drones and robots that work straight out of the printer.

A group of researchers from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) developed a new platform with an eye-catching automated process: it prints functional, custom-made robotic devices without any human intervention.

The system, called "LaserFactory", is composed of two parts: a software toolkit for users to design custom devices, and a hardware platform that automates the fabrication process.

In a press release, CSAIL Ph.D. student Martin Nisser describes the platform as a "one-stop-shop" that could be greatly beneficial to roboticists, educators, and product developers looking to quickly build a prototype.

"Making fabrication inexpensive, fast, and accessible to a layman remains a challenge," explains Nisser. "By leveraging widely available manufacturing platforms like 3D printers and laser cutters, LaserFactory is the first system that integrates these capabilities and automates the full pipeline for making functional devices in one system."

Democratizing the robot-building process

The researchers plan to reveal more about their project at an event in May, though the following description from the team's press statement gives a good idea of the platform's workings:

"Let’s say a user has aspirations to create their own drone. They’d first design their device by placing components on it from a parts library, and then draw on circuit traces, which are the copper or aluminum lines on a printed circuit board that allow electricity to flow between electronic components.

"They’d then finalize the drone’s geometry in the 2D editor. In this case, they’d use propellers and batteries on the canvas, wire them up to make electrical connections, and draw the perimeter to define the quadcopter’s shape."

A video further lays out the process, which sees users view a preview of their design before the proprietary software translates their custom blueprint into single-file machine instructions that allow the device to be built in one go.

In terms of hardware, the laser cutter features an add-on that prints circuit traces and assembles components — it even allows the machine to dispense and cure silver to make circuit traces conductive.

Impressively, the method allows for a drone to fly right out of the sheet of material that was cut to make its shell. 

The researchers hope their platform will help to democratize the process of robot-building: "In the future, people shouldn’t be expected to have an engineering degree to build robots, any more than they should have a computer science degree to install software," Nisser explains. So anyone could be responsible for Skynet

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