Throughout the history of humankind, we have taken inspiration from nature and our fellow species in the animal kingdom for technology. In fact, the world of engineering owes a lot to the animal kingdom for inspiring new technological innovation over the years. On such inspiration is the best 3D printing architect of the animal kingdom – the spiders.
Spiders have long been recognised as master builders. However, no one has thought of bio-mimicking their techniques for 3D printing until very recently. Even though it is possible to fabricate objects out of anything from precious metals to biomaterials with the help of 3D printers, the size of the machine’s build space causes a lot of challenges to the creativity and engineering prowess it has to offer. But how spiders fit into this scene?
Researchers Come Up with Robot Spiders for 3D Printing?
A group of researchers at Siemens in Princeton, New Jersey, have developed 8-legged 3D printing robots that can extrude polylactic acid (PLA), a mixture of sugarcane and cornstarch used in some 3D printing applications. These robots are called SiSpis. According to a report published in Newequipment.com, these spiders can only manufacture a small portion of a workpiece.
The report also reveals that the spiders use an onboard camera and laser scanner to interpret the environment and then do an autonomous calculation of how much of an object they can handle. Then the other spiders will decide which vertical boxes they need to cover using an algorithm. The algorithm is developed by Siemen’s Product Design, Modelling, and Simulation Research group.
Currently, the batteries of these robots last about two hours. When the battery in a spider is low, it returns to the charging station as another spider picks up the work where the other one has left off. The technology is clearly at a nascent stage, and PLA is the only material that the spiders use right now. However, there are discussions regarding the use of concrete and other materials.
Researchers believe that once the technology matures, it can be applied to almost anything. There are possibilities that several robot spiders will be able to build a car or computer out of thin air by using different materials.
How Does SiSpi Work?
As mentioned, the 3D-printing spiders make autonomous calculations for working, and autonomy is the central part of other spider behaviours. It allows them to know which environment they are in and when it needs to recharge its batteries. And while it goes back to the charging station, it transmits its data to another spider that has been charged so that it can pick up the work where the first one left off.
Whenever the spiders find any obstacle in the way, they simply find a path around it. Interestingly, Siemens started working on the spider-worker project back in January 2014. Its goal was to develop a prototype platform from autonomous machines for manufacturing. They thought of machines that could understand a task, split the task among the available robots, and start working on the manufacturing process in a coordinated and collaborative way without the study help of complex programming.
The PLM software solution at Siemens, NX, was combined with Robot Operating System to help build the foundation of the SiSpi robots. In fact, all the materials needed to build the robots, except the mini motors and cables, were produced using 3D printing.
The algorithms built for the robots allow multi-robot task planning, enabling two or more devices to collaborate on the manufacturing process or surface processing of a single object or area. The team of developers also designed the behaviour of the robots. In other words, the team had to come up with ways to precisely calibrate the spiders’ manufacturing nozzles. Each of the spider robots is equipped with an extruder just like the ones on traditional 3D printers.
Are These Spiders Going to Be Efficient?
A lot of people are still sceptical about the efficiency of spider robots. It is not clear whether or not a hundred of these SiSpis will be faster and more efficient than a giant 3D printer while building large structures.
However, there has been some progress in a similar type of structure building with the help of robotics. It is believed by many that the engineers who are working on the MX3D’s 3D-printed bridge project in Amsterdam can collaborate with the people who built the 50-foot high giant performance spider, La Princesse (in France) to come up with a solution.
While the researchers are able to achieve the initial goal of developing a system that works with maximum autonomy and minimum programming requirements, there is still a long way to go. As a next step, the team of people who developed SiSpis is transferring accumulated knowledge from these Spiderbots to the industrial robots to enable collaborative and mobile manufacturing at the industrial level.
If you are afraid of spiders, it can be difficult for you to think of Giant spiders that will spearhead the manufacturing of structures in the near future. But if things go as planned, we may see such spider-bots working on building skyscrapers, bridges, underground tunnels, and even bases on the moon.
If Ron could conquer his fear of spiders and give company to harry in the Forbidden Forest, you can certainly accept these spider bots (despite your fear) that are supposed to lead the way for better 3D printing technology.