The 3D Printing Role in Robotics Automation

Robotic Hands That Can Pick Up Anything

While 3D printed robotic arms have been successfully used to sort packages on a conveyor belt or bolt a screw in place on a car engine, there are instances when it cannot just pick up objects of different shapes in an assembly line. Some engineers at the University of Washington are finding ways and results are looking promising.

At the height of the pandemic, a team of University of Washington computer scientists and engineers were helping the government in manufacturing PPEs like face masks and face shields. Ford Automotive also helped, but personnel had to be brought in because the robotic arms being used just couldn’t pick up the face shields as easily and as cheaply as a steering wheel.

Robots do repetitive tasks over and over again. But you cannot turn them from manufacturing cars to manufacturing face shields just like that. So the team at the university decided to turn to a 3D printer to help solve this problem. They needed to have robotic hands or grippers pick up an item in order to be able to manipulate it, to scan it, to do other things with it.

The researchers used computer-aided design models of different objects ranging from household items to more complex shapes. They used software to identify the three best points on that object that a robotic hand, or gripper, could reach for and grab without knocking it over. It must be able to pick on the right three points to balance it just right. There is a set of instructions in the computer that could be fed into a 3D printer to make a plastic, three-fingered, hand-like gripper customized to the shape of the object being picked up.

Likewise, the team were also able to have the exact shape to pick up an object without any additional components to install, retool an entire robot by just using a cheap 3D printer to print off components, and rotate the objects 180 degrees.

The results are encouraging. The team believes that with more shapes to work with, they will gain more familiarity with the capabilities of the robotic hand. All they need to do now is to experiment with more objects of different shapes and, in the future, scale up the capabilities of robotic automation from doing 20 objects daily to 2 million.

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