Novel 3D printing method embeds sensing capabilities within robotic actuators

Researchers at Harvard University have built soft robots inspired by nature that can crawl, swim, grasp delicate objects and even assist a beating heart, but none of these devices has been able to sense and respond to the world around them.

That’s about to change.

Harvard researchers have developed a platform for creating soft robots with embedded sensors that can sense movement, pressure, touch, and temperature. (Image courtesy of Ryan L. Truby/Harvard University)

Inspired by our bodies’ sensory capabilities, researchers at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have developed a platform for creating soft robots with embedded sensors that can sense movement, pressure, touch, and even temperature.

The research is published in Advanced Materials.

“Our research represents a foundational advance in soft robotics,” said Ryan Truby, first author of the paper and recent Ph.D. graduate at SEAS. “Our manufacturing platform enables complex sensing motifs to be easily integrated into soft robotic systems.”

Integrating sensors within soft robots has been difficult in part because most sensors, such as those used in traditional electronics, are rigid.  To address this challenge, the researchers developed an organic ionic liquid-based conductive ink that can be 3D printed within the soft elastomer matrices that comprise most soft robots.

“To date, most integrated sensor/actuator systems used in soft robotics have been quite rudimentary,” said Michael Wehner, former postdoctoral fellow at SEAS and co-author of the paper. “By directly printing ionic liquid sensors within these soft systems, we open new avenues to device design and fabrication that will ultimately allow true closed loop control of soft robots.”

Wehner is now an assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

To fabricate the device, the researchers relied on an established 3D printing technique developed in the lab of Jennifer Lewis, the Hansjorg Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering at SEAS and Core Faculty Member of the Wyss Institute. The technique — known as embedded 3D printing — seamlessly and quickly integrates multiple features and materials within a single soft body.

“This work represents the latest example of the enabling capabilities afforded by embedded 3D printing – a technique pioneered by our lab,” said Lewis.

“The function and design flexibility of this method is unparalleled,” said Truby. “This new ink combined with our embedded 3D printing process allows us to combine both soft sensing and actuation in one integrated soft robotic system.”

To test the sensors, the team printed a soft robotic gripper comprised of three soft fingers or actuators. The researchers tested the gripper’s ability to sense inflation pressure, curvature, contact, and temperature. They embedded multiple contact sensors, so the gripper could sense light and deep touches.

“Soft robotics are typically limited by conventional molding techniques that constrain geometry choices, or, in the case of commercial 3D printing, material selection that hampers design choices,” said Robert Wood, the Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at SEAS, Core Faculty Member of the Wyss Institute, and co-author of the paper.  “The techniques developed in the Lewis Lab have the opportunity to revolutionize how robots are created — moving away from sequential processes and creating complex and monolithic robots with embedded sensors and actuators.”

Next, the researchers hope to harness the power of machine learning to train these devices to grasp objects of varying size, shape, surface texture, and temperature.

The research was coauthored by Abigail Grosskopf, Daniel Vogt and Sebastien Uzel. It was supported it part by National Science Foundation through Harvard MRSEC and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.

>> Posted by Leah Burrows, Harvard John A. Paulson SEAS News, February 28, 2018

To Understand If 3D Printing Works for You, Educate Yourself

The best way to understand the benefits of 3D printing is to redesign a product to take advantage of the process, experts say.

3D printing won’t help your manufacturing process unless you educate yourself and understand your own products, experts will say at the upcoming Cleveland Advanced Design & Manufacturing Expo.

“You have to put in the effort,” Jack Heslin, founder of J3D Services, told Design News. “You need to look at your components and study them in light of additive technologies. What are your products’ dimensional qualities? What are their stresses, loads and thermal properties? You first need to redesign your components to take advantage of 3D printing, and only then can you assess whether it will help you or not.”

Heslin, who will be joined by a panel of three other experts at the expo, told us that many manufacturers don’t bother to do the hard work up front, and because of that, never fully understand the potential benefits.

“The wrong way to do it is to look at something you’ve made for many years with few modifications, and ask, ‘Can we 3D print this?’” Heslin said. “The answer from a purely technical perspective is probably going to be yes. But if you do it that way, it’s probably going to cost more money. And you’re probably not going to get any advantage out of it.”

Heslin contends that the key to getting benefits from 3D printing lies in the redesign. He cited the example of Optisys LLC, a maker of micro-antenna products for aerospace and defense applications. Using a 3D-printed metal antenna, he said, Optisys recently reduced a product’s part count from 100 to one, cut its weight by 95%, dropped lead time from 11 months to two, and slashed production costs by 20-25%. He also pointed to the recent successful test of a new 3D-printed advanced turboprop aircraft engine from GE. 3D printing reportedly enabled GE designers to combine 855 separate assemblies into 12, allowing engineers to shave off more than 100 pounds of mass and improve fuel burn by as much as 20%.

The key to realizing such advantages is to examine the entire process that underlies the product, Heslin said. That includes the initial concept, CAD design, prototyping, production, jigs, fixtures, tooling, and support. “If you look at each one of these steps in the manufacturing process, there’s probably going to be a way in which additive manufacturing will provide a benefit,” he said.

Unfortunately, many manufacturers are unaware of the different types of 3D printing processes, and the ways they might help, Heslin added. Many hear the term “3D printing” and believe it’s a single process. “There are seven distinct 3D printing technologies as defined by ASTM (American Society of Testing and Materials), and those technologies can have remarkably little in common,” he said. “So if you’re looking at one 3D printing technology and it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t mean the others won’t work for you.”

Many manufacturers never do a fair assessment because doing so can be difficult and time consuming, Heslin said. Large manufacturers with big engineering staffs are more likely to be able to afford to create a task force and investigate the matter. “If you have 40- or 50-person manufacturing company, and everyone’s job is crucial to the bottom line, it’s not going to be easy to take the time to do this,” Heslin said.

Still, Heslin urged manufacturers to consider 3D printing, even if it doesn’t seem to be obvious fit at first glance. “You have to start, whether you know a lot or a little,” he told us. “If you don’t, your competitor might.”

>> Posted by Charles Murray in Design News, February 28, 2018

Speeding Up 3D Printing by a Lot

Volumetric 3D printing creates parts by overlapping three laser beams from three different directions. (mage: LLNL)

Anyone who’s watched a 3D printer in action knows the whole experience is one of excruciating boredom. It can take hours for a standard a standard printer to create a simple figurine. Yawn.

Maxim Shusteff, a staff engineer in the materials engineering division of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and his colleagues, were just as bored with the process as the rest of us. So they found a way to speed things up…by a lot.

“The question we put to ourselves was could we take the next leap in additive by making 3D structures all at once,” Shusteff says.

By using laser-generated 3D images flashed into photosensitive resin, researchers were able to build complex 3D parts in a fraction of the time of traditional layer-by-layer printing. (Image: LLNL)

To do that they turned to that ever-useful phenomenon, light. Stereolithographic printers already use light to cure polymers. But they do it at a snail’s pace, layer by layer.  Shusteff’s team hoped to eliminate that annoying limitation. Borrowing from the techniques of holography, they created a 3D-printing process that uses lasers to cure every part of an object at the same time.

The Livermore researchers call the method “volumetric printing” and have used it to print beams, planes, struts, lattices and other complex and curved objects in seconds. Their paper was recently published in Science Advances.

In essence, Shusteff’s volumetric printer sends multiple laser beams into a vat of photosensitive liquid polymer. The polymer hardens where the lasers intersect and the light is at its brightest. “It takes a certain dose of light to cure the material,” Shusteff says. “We are trying to shape the light pattern so that it all reaches a certain dose at the same time.”

The printer uses a primary laser beam that has been expanded to about two inches in diameter. Other beams are reflected to intersect with the wider beam to create the right intensity. Watch the process here.

For lasers to reach all points of an object at once, the polymer they transverse needs to be transparent. Right now that means the object that’s 3D printed has to be transparent to the visible eye. As a result, the items the lab has printed so far have a clear, icy quality to them. But future versions of the printer could, conceivably, print in color, mainly because visible light is only one type of radiation and many materials are transparent in some wavelengths but not others. “Transparency is not as narrow of a category as, intuitively, we think it is,” Shusteff says.

Once the printer is automated, it will be able to cure an entire action figure, phone case or whatever in about ten seconds or so.

In addition to revolutionizing the speed of printing 3D objects, the new process will also fix some other problems. Spanning and overhanging structures, which are difficult to create with traditional 3D printers, would be no problem for a volumetric printer. And the size of a printed object is theoretically unlimited. “To make bigger parts, all you need is a bigger tank of resin and a more powerful light source —both are widely available,” Shusteff says.

With a seconds long print time, volumetric printing may eventually take 3D printing fully out of the prototype realm and straight to manufacturing. But that revolution will have to wait till there’s been a little more development.

“What we did is take a first stab at seeing what’s possible with this technique,” says Shusteff. “We haven’t had a chance to push the performance matrix to any great degree. Can we do a part in a second? Can you do it in a tenth of a second? Who knows? There’s plenty of work to do.”

>> This article by Michael Abrams was posted on, February 2018

10 Ways 3D Printing Is Advancing Plastics Manufacturing

By expanding possibilities for plastic parts, short-run molds and production mold tooling, additive manufacturing is becoming an important complement to established plastics processes.

This year, Additive Manufacturing will host conferences at the leading events for metalworking and plastics processing. Our Additive Manufacturing Conference returns in September to the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS), and our new 3D Printing Workshop debuts at NPE 2018: The Plastics Show. The focused half-day workshop will be held at NPE in Orlando, Florida, on May 5. Get details about our conferences.

The topic of additive manufacturing as it affects plastics manufacturers encompasses a great deal. 3D printing as a replacement for current plastics processes might always be unthinkable. For a production run of hundreds of thousands of parts, the option to 3D print plastic components can’t come close to competing with the speed and efficiency of a process such as injection molding. But 3D printing as a complement to current processes is becoming an important factor. In many applications and in many different uses, 3D printing is both improving plastics manufacturing and expanding the options for plastic parts.

Here are just 10 of the ways we’ve seen 3D printing advancing as it relates to plastic part production:

1. Faster throughput

At certain scales, 3D printing is indeed an option for production, and the scale is increasing. Some 3D printers engineered for production today generate parts at rates an order of magnitude faster than what has previously been accepted. 3D Systems, for example, says its Figure 4 production 3D printing system increases speed by a factor of 15 over previous industrial 3D printers, reducing the unit cost of a 3D-printed part by 20 percent thanks in part to the cycle time reduction.

2. Bigger parts

A very large polymer 3D printer such as the Cincinnati Inc. BAAM machine might offer a build volume of 180 cubic meters. This is huge, and machine models such as this capture a lot of attention. But just as notable is the range of machine models now available at sizes that are much smaller, yet still large. Various machine builders have introduced cost-effective industrial 3D printers making parts the size of a large molded component. As a representative example, the 3DMonstr Super-Rex 3D printer offers a build volume of 3 cubic meters.

3. New options for short-term molds

Plastic molds can make plastic parts. This mold, which was 3D-printed in carbon reinforced polymer by Avante Technology, offers a cost- and time-effective option for molding a short run of parts. A mold such as this can last for hundreds of cycles.

3D printing provides a short-lead-time option for directly making a few parts, but it also provides a short-lead-time option for making an injection mold. The right choice of polymer can reliably produce mold tooling for low to medium quantities. Wyoming-based Avante Technology 3D prints injection molds from carbon fiber reinforced polymer that have consistently lasted beyond 100 cycles, and the company says could last to 500 cycles.

4. More efficient production molds

3D printing of metal molds makes possible conformal cooling channels that can improve both the quality of the molded part and the molding cycle time. This rendering from Conformal Cooling Solutions shows a cavity with conventional cooling channels and a 3D-printed core that has conformal cooling channels built in.

Meanwhile, 3D printing in steel can make improved mold tooling for high-volume production. With printed-in conformal cooling channels replacing straight drilled holes, the mold’s cooling is more effective, likely improving molded part quality and reducing cycle time. Mold supplier Conformal Cooling Solutions uses robotic deposition technology to 3D print large injection molds with conformal channels.

5. Customization for consumer products

This prototype from Footprint 3D exposes the lattices of the midsole to show how they provide cushioning and support that are customized to the shape of the wearer’s feet.

Medical and dental products are now routinely tailored to the individual via 3D printing, so how far are we from consumer products following suit? The work of various footwear providers suggests shoes will soon be widely available that optimally fit the wearer’s feet. Footprint 3D is an example of a company advancing this idea; the firm uses 3D scans of an individual’s feet to 3D print shoes with custom midsoles featuring lattices for precise support and cushioning.

6. New manufacturing business models

Can a manufacturing plant locate in the heart of a city? Manufacturers today tend to locate in suburban industrial parks with easy access to major highways. But because of its reliance on 3D printing, Voodoo Manufacturing is able to locate in Brooklyn. The company uses 160 desktop printers working simultaneously to achieve a part production rate that makes the company cost-competitive with injection molding—and faster in delivery—for quantities up to 10,000 pieces.

7. Plastic replacing metal

In many cases, metal is the material of choice for a given part only because it offers the easiest way to get a rugged functional component in a low quantity. Machining the part from aluminum is a practical option. But with 3D printing now able to efficiently deliver polymer parts in low quantities, metal will not be the material of choice so frequently. Carbon-fiber-filled 3D-printed polymer can serve as the material for components previously expected to be metal.

8. More efficient toolmaking

3D printing thrives on one-off parts, and perhaps the most common type of one-off part in any manufacturing facility is its own internal tooling. That is, not just mold tooling but jigs, fixtures and all manner of industrial tools. Much of this tooling can be made from polymer instead of metal components, and when it is made on a 3D printer, it need not consume production capacity or even take up much of the production personnel’s time. With 3D printing, Volkswagen Autoeuropa reduced its tool development time by 95 percent while improving tools’ ergonomics and simplifying tool repair and modification.

9. Prototyping without impeding production

And just as making tooling need not cut into production, making prototypes can be kept isolated from production resources as well. Desktop polymer printers often can be effective not just for look-and-feel prototypes but for functional prototypes as well. Stanley Black & Decker recently introduced a simple 3D desktop printer with a 200-mm-square build area. With a resource such as this, the engineer might be able to make a prototype at his or her desk without enlisting the attention of manufacturing staff.

10. Manufacturing moving in-house

The earlier version of part of a tool from Arizona Home Floors is made of metal (center). For a new version of the tool, the company made a prototype of the part on its own 3D printer (left), then proceeded to run the production part this way as well (right) as an alternative to outsourcing manufacturing.

As companies adopt industrial 3D printers to accelerate product development by prototyping in-house, it becomes only a short leap to manufacturing production parts in-house as well. Arizona Home Floors, a developer of tools for installing and removing flooring, never intended to become a manufacturer. It had previously outsourced manufacturing. But for a new chipping hammer it recently developed, manufacturing parts on the same 3D printer that had prototyped the parts proved to be the most efficient approach. As more companies choose this route, 3D printing is expanding not only the application of plastics, but also who is doing plastics manufacturing.

>> This post by Peter Zelinski appeared in Additive Manufacturing, 2/26/28

AM Enables Manufacturing for Design, Not the Other Way Around

Additive manufacturing allows us to make any shape we want, without having to adapt the design for the manufacturing process.

The distinction between opportunistic and restrictive DFAM was first introduced in the 2015 article “Assembly Based Methods to Support Product Innovation in Design for Additive Manufacturing: An Exploratory Case Study” published in the ASME Journal of Mechanical Design.

Good designers and engineers know how to design for manufacturing. Using their experience and guidelines for the various processes, they can design parts that are easy and cost-effective to machine, cast, forge or otherwise get into the shape they want. By some estimates, designers and engineers spend 30 to 50 percent of their time designing a shape to achieve the desired function and the rest of their time adapting that shape for the manufacturing process that will be used to make it. While this is important, it is frustrating to think how much time is spent designing for manufacturing.

Additive manufacturing (AM) changes that. With AM, we finally have manufacturing for design, because we can make nearly any shape we want with this technology. An AM system does not care, so to speak, whether it is making a solid block or a complex, organic shape; the computer just tells the laser or deposition head where to melt or deposit material in each layer. Yet, as we have discussed in the past, some shapes are easier to manufacture additively than others. For instance, overhanging features printed in metal often need support structures, thin walls can collapse or be damaged depending on their build orientation, and thick sections can tear themselves apart as residual stresses build up inside the part.

While no AM equipment provider wants to admit it, these considerations do restrict what types of parts can be made easily with the technology. Fortunately, AM still allows ample opportunities to produce geometries that would be impossible to make with conventional processes. Its opportunistic versus restrictive nature exemplifies how design for additive manufacturing (DFAM) is both freeing and constraining at the same time. The extent to which designers think restrictively versus opportunistically depends on how AM is used. I generally think of three use cases: replicate with AM, adapt for AM and optimize for AM.

Replicate with AM

In this case, the geometry is given and cannot be modified, because the goal is to replicate an existing part exactly. One example is the link and fitting for a U.S. Navy helicopter that I discussed in a previous blog post. Replicating with AM is often where organizations start, because they want to be able to make an “apples-to-apples” comparison between the AM part and its conventionally made counterpart. The only real benefit here is speed, because the part is being replicated exactly. It will not cost any less (in fact, it will likely cost a lot more, given the cost of material feedstock for AM systems), and it will not perform any better, or be lighter or stronger. In fact, because the part’s geometry was designed to be made with a conventional manufacturing process and not with AM, the restrictive nature of DFAM applies most in this use case (see graphic).

Adapt for AM

In this use case, the geometry is given, but it can be modified to minimize or avoid the restrictive aspects of AM (overhangs, support structures, thin walls, thick sections and so on). In the piston crown example described in another post, we adapted the original design and were able to reduce the support structures (restrictive DFAM) while enhancing the internal geometry with conformal cooling channels (opportunistic DFAM). The adapted design printed faster, required almost no postprocessing and offered improved heat transfer for better performance. Adapting designs for AM reduces the restrictive aspects of the process that can drive up cost and takes advantage of opportunities to enhance performance. So if replicating with AM compares apples to apples, then adapting for AM is like comparing apples to oranges.

Optimize for AM

In this use case, the geometry is designed specifically for AM. This is where generative design tools such as topology optimization, lattice structures, biomimicry and so on come into play and leverage the opportunistic aspects of AM. The lightweight oil and gas part highlighted in this post is an example of this. By using lattice structures and thinking about part orientation and overhangs during the design process, we were able to additively manufacture a part that was lighter weight, required no support structures and permitted material substitution that led to enhanced part life.

If the first two use cases are akin to comparing fruit to fruit, then this third use case is like comparing fruits to vegetables—you can get the same nutrients out of each, but what you might eat is an entirely different type of food, one that you may not have considered before. Similarly, with AM, we can rethink what we are trying to achieve and not be as constrained by the process that will be used to make it. This is where AM can take us.

This article originally appeared in Additive Insights, a monthly column in Modern Machine Shop magazine.

>> Posted by Timothy W. Simpson, Additive Manufacturing, 2/16/18

Boeing and Oerlikon team up to advance 3D printing of titanium aerospace components

Infrared image of a 3D-printed 777X wing component (Credit: Boeing)

Aerospace giant Boeing and Swiss technology group Oerlikon have signed a partnership to advance 3D printing processes. The five-year partnership will first focus on powder bed additive manufacturing of structural titanium components for the aerospace industry with the goal of standardizing everything from initial powder management to finished product.

3D printing has seen many remarkable advances in recent years, especially in the field of metal-based additive printing. The fact that the technique is moving out of the gee-whiz phase and into the mainstream is further emphasized by the agreement between Boeing and Oerlikon. When industry starts talking about standardization, it’s a clear indication that a technology is moving away from exotica and toward routine manufacturing, and is especially noteworthy when it involves a metal like titanium.

Printing with metal requires a machine that lays down a layer of metallic powder. A laser guided by a 3D design file then sinters a cross section of the desired product in the bed of powder before another layer is added and the process repeats until completed. The excess powder is then removed along with any temporary support structures before the component goes on for final finishing.

This is relatively straightforward with metals like aluminum, but titanium is notoriously difficult to work with whatever process is used, 3D printing being no exception. It involves very careful planning while the item to be printed only exists in digital form. During the printing process, the density of the titanium is hard to control as is the temperature at which it melts and the final surface finish. In addition, altering the design of prototypes during development has a knock-on effect in regard to the metal and 3D printing process.

The current agreement will initially focus on standardizing titanium-based 3D printing and making sure that printed components meet US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Department of Defense (DoD) flight requirements, as well as quality and cost targets.

“This program will drive the faster adoption of additive manufacturing in the rapidly growing aerospace, space and defense markets,” says Dr Roland Fischer, CEO Oerlikon Group. “Working together with Boeing will define the path in producing airworthy additive manufacturing components for serial manufacturing. We see collaboration as a key enabler to unlocking the value that additive manufacturing can bring to aircraft platforms and look forward to partnering with Boeing.”

>> By David Szondy, New Atlas, February 20, 2018

Are You Ready for Operator 4.0?

From cobots to augmented reality, new technologies are enhancing rather than replacing factory floor workers, empowering them to shift time and energy to more value-added work.

Tucked within the emerging technology enclave in Brooklyn, N.Y., is a little-known company putting state-of-the-art technology like 3D printers and collaborative robots (cobots) to work to create a manufacturing production facility that can compete with the likes of traditional injection molders.

At Voodoo Manufacturing, a couple hundred low-end 3D printers churn out product from dawn to dusk. With human operators tending to the printer farm, Voodoo saw only a 30-40 percent printer utilization rate—dropping to nothing overnight when operators weren’t around. All of that changed when Voodoo put a Universal Robots UR10 cobot into play. Now, the UR10 automates a key task in Voodoo’s 3D printing workflow—harvesting parts and swapping out the build plate—and the company is looking to expand the operation to include removal of scaffolding material. With laborious maintenance tasks automated through the use of cobots, Voodoo can now redirect operators to attend to more pressing business matters that still require human intervention.

Voodoo Manufacturing employs cobots to automate the loading and unloading of plates in its 3D printing manufacturing farm.

“By doing this, we keep our printers up and running 24/7 so we get more utilization out of the factory and we make more money,” explains Jonathan Schwartz, co-founder and chief product officer for Voodoo Manufacturing. “Operators can then work on processes that require more of a human touch—vetting orders for manufacturability, for example, or deciding on the best way to carry out production of orders. Our vision for factory employees is not to have them be the ones responsible for keeping systems running, but to do things that require more skill and creativity.”

As the fourth industrial revolution and smart factories begin to take shape, there is lots of talk and apprehension about automation and robots commandeering the workplace and replacing human operators on production lines and maintenance crews. The International Federation of Robotics is forecasting 18 percent growth in industrial robot installations in 2017, with 15 percent growth for the years between 2018 and 2020. By 2019, 35 percent of leading organizations in logistics, health, utilities and resources will be well down the path of exploring how to leverage robots to automate operations, according to International Data Corp.

Though some jobs will certainly be lost to automation, most industry watchers are predicting a new genre of collaboration where robots augment rather than replace human workers. In addition, a surge of new technologies from augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) to exoskeletons and new mobile and social analytics tools will change the way plant personnel work, creating a newly empowered operator focused on problem solving and more creative tasks in lieu of manual labor.

“No one dreams of standing around in front of machines and hitting the start button over and over,” says Daymon Thompson, U.S. product manager at Beckhoff Automation. “This gives operators the opportunity to do something with more advanced skills or lets maintenance guys grow their skills to earn higher salaries.”

With its TwinCAT PC-based control system, Beckhoff sees its role in Industry 4.0 and the next-generation operator as a key technology enabler for interoperability. Through use of both information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) open standards, such as OPC UA and MQTT, machine control providers can leverage TwinCAT to support and integrate a range of new technologies, including new wearable devices or AR/VR tools into new automation workflows. They can also use TwinCAT Analytics software to capture data and generate insights that could lead to advanced operations such as predictive and, eventually, self-correcting maintenance.

“If you look at the man-machine balance in the manufacturing line, you want the operator to be busy so they can optimize their time,” Thompson explains. “If the machines can run longer unattended, the operator can run more machines.”

Along with analytics, there are a variety of other emerging technologies poised to transform the average plant floor worker into a high-tech powerhouse.

Role-based apps and social tools

Even before an investment in cobots, AR/VR or other cutting-edge technologies, PTC believes the logical first step in empowering plant and maintenance personnel is making the leap in operational intelligence. That means technology that can serve up better data to enable quality improvements and cost reduction as well as help increase a manufacturer’s flexibility and agility, says JP Provencher, PTC’s vice president for manufacturing strategy and solutions.

“Manufacturers aren’t looking to buy more robots and machines to replace everyone on the shop floor as their first step,” Provencher explains. “They first want to understand where they need to perform better and make investments in people and machines on the factory floor.”

To that end, PTC’s ThingWorx Manufacturing Apps collect and unify data culled from enterprise business systems and sensored industrial equipment, delivering it to users for real-time insights based on their individual roles.

For example, ThingWorx Controls Advisor gives control engineers the ability to rapidly connect to and remotely visualize data from any programmable logic controller (PLC), Internet of Things (IoT) gateway or connected asset, allowing them to easily monitor and troubleshoot equipment and keep abreast of communication errors that could result in loss of critical production data. ThingWorx Asset Advisor, aimed at maintenance and service technicians, remotely monitors and detects anomalies across equipment, providing the user with real-time visibility into the health and status of critical assets and helping them minimize unplanned downtime. ThingWorx Production Advisor gives production managers a real-time view into production status and key performance indicators (KPIs), such as availability, performance, quality and overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). Armed with this data, they gain actionable intelligence that will assist them in faster and more proactive decision-making to fix problems and drive continuous improvement on the shop floor.

“Our first step is to empower the workers in the factory with data they’ve always needed, but today, is trapped in different silos,” Provencher says.

Rockwell Automation’s FactoryTalk TeamOne mobile social app is a way to foster team productivity on the plant floor—edging it toward its mission to increase productivity by a minimum of 33 seconds per hour for every industrial role. The mobile app, which runs on a standard smartphone or tablet, uses a social paradigm so operators can collaborate and share information in real time, improving their reaction time to machine issues and reducing mean time to repair and unplanned down time. Once set up as a team, all the data is securely synced to devices, and operators can collaborate by chatting directly in the app or posting on the team board where all members can see. They can check alarms, take pictures of error codes, share incident reports and reference the same data at a later point if the same problem reoccurs.

“It’s really powerful when you start to bring in new people,” explains Sharon Billi-Duran, product manager for Rockwell. “It serves as a powerful tool to get human knowledge and bring it into the connected enterprise.”

FactoryTalk TeamOne can work with FactoryTalk Analytics for Devices, an all-in-one appliance for finding maintenance issues on an automation network; and also with Shelby, a friendly chatbot module along the lines of Apple Siri or Amazon Alexa, to enhance the operator environment.

Rockwell Automation’s FactoryTalk TeamOne mobile app uses a social paradigm so operators can collaborate and share information in real time.

AR/VR opens up new worlds

Once there is a more informed understanding of the current state of performance on the plant floor, PTC and others see emerging AR/VR capabilities enabling additional intelligence to improve operations. New 3D work instructions that are highly visual and accessible in a hands-free format can help plant floor workers get their work done faster, especially when they don’t have to hit a number of machines and separate human-machine interface (HMI) screens to get the data they need to perform a task, Provencher says.

Given the emergence of more customized products and industrial assets, AR experiences can also connect a service technician or plant floor worker with an expert who can provide troubleshooting assistance in context of the actual physical asset. “Operators are working with more and more complex equipment and products,” Provencher says. “They can better manage this complexity and simplify the information served to them by delivering it through AR in an intuitive and efficient way.”

Global giant thyssenkrupp is using Microsoft’s HoloLens AR headset to empower its army of 24,000 field technicians servicing elevators around the world. The headset allows them to visualize and identify problems ahead of a job, have hands-free access to information when on-site, and use Skype as part of the AR experience to make remote calls to subject matter experts who can share holographic instructions and other key information via the headset.

Integrating AR into the service workflow has changed the way thyssenkrupp service techs do their job. Traditionally, they’ve had to go to a customer site, make a call and take on-site photos to describe the equipment and any customizations, and engage in a lot of back-and-forth with experts on the manufacturing line before they could properly identify the problem and then initiate a fix, explains Luis Ramos, head of communications for thyssenkrupp. Now, armed with HoloLens and the built-in Skype capabilities, they can establish a real-time connection with an expert at the manufacturing site, which has enabled service staffers to complete calls four times faster than with traditional processes, he adds. The team has also minimized the need to fly in experts from Germany to troubleshoot problems in the complex environment.

Though thyssenkrupp has seen great results, Ramos cautions organizations to do sufficient training on the AR tools to optimize their effectiveness and target a narrow workflow, at least initially. “You want your service techs to use AR to do between three and five processes,” he explains. “Otherwise, they can get lost.”

Microsoft’s HoloLens lets thyssenkrupp service techs collaborate with remote experts over Skype to troubleshoot elevator problems at the customer site.

The rise of the collaborative robot

Cobots are among the most highly anticipated technologies expected to empower next-generation operators and shape the smart factory. Handling smaller pay loads, but easier to operate and able to work in conjunction with humans, cobots were a $176.7 million business last year and are forecast to hit $4.28 billion by 2023, according to a report from MarketsandMarkets.

Rather than play into the concept of a “lights out” factory with no human workers, cobots actually help grow the business and create efficiencies, which typically leads to the hiring of more employees, contends Esben Østergaard, chief technology officer for Universal Robots. “By automating, you get higher throughput, more consistent quality and twice as much out of your machines,” he explains. “That frees up people to do the kind of work only people can do,” such as tweaking product designs to be more competitive, leveraging their knowledge of materials or optimizing processes.

That’s exactly what is happening at Voodoo Manufacturing. The UR10 cobots are easy to get up and running, they are simple to program, and they can work side-by-side with humans instead of having to cordon off large sections of the factory floor like you would with traditional robots. “We love the idea of having a factory floor where robots and humans work together without worrying about an employee being impaled or killed,” Voodoo’s Schwartz says.

Schwartz doesn’t believe cobots or any of these new technologies are a threat to his factory workers. Rather, he believes they are another tool in the toolbox that can create the optimal machine-to-human balance. “Throughout history we, as mankind, have created tools to let us do things better, faster, easier and safer,” he says. “As a result of introducing robots to the plant floor, human employees can focus less on repetitive tasks that are no fun at all and more on things where they can utilize their critical thinking and creative capabilities.”

>> By Beth Stackpole for Automation World, February 13, 2018

Stelia uses 3D printing to create self-reinforcing aircraft fuselage panel

The printed fuselage panel showing the rough printed surface on the left and the polished and painted surface on the right (Credit: Stelia Aerospace)

Stelia Aerospace believes 3D printing has the potential to go large when it comes to aircraft construction. The French-based company has unveiled the first printed self-reinforcing fuselage panel in an effort to demonstrate the potential of additive manufacturing to deliver cheaper, lighter and more environmentally-friendly components.

Aerospace manufacturing is a complex, expensive, and time consuming affair that involves a huge logistical army bringing together hundreds of thousands of parts, which all need to be fitted together just so if the final product is an aircraft safe to fly and not an overpriced hunk of scrap. Fuselages, for example, are often nothing but tubes of thin-rolled aluminum alloy that couldn’t hold its shape against its own weight. For that reason, the hull of an aircraft is reinforced by a spider’s web of stiffeners that act as a supporting skeleton.

The problem is that these stiffeners need to be set in place, fitted, then secured using screws or welding. Not only does this cost time and money, but every additional part and step means one more thing to inspect and one more thing that can go wrong.

Diagram of a fuselage with 3D-printed stiffeners (Credit: Stelia Aerospace)

Working in conjunction with Constellium aluminum, engineering school Centrale Nantes and the CT Ingénierie group, Stelia has come up with a much simpler fuselage panel that incorporates its own reinforcements. The one-piece, 1 m² metal demonstrator was created by a programmed robotic tool using a process called Wire Arc Additive Manufacturing (WAAM). This is similar to 3D printing techniques that melt strands of plastic and deposit it to build up an object. Only in this case, the plastic is replaced by aluminum wire that’s melted by an electric arc, which means the stiffeners can be directly printed on instead of being added later.

Stelia hopes that the new panel will show the potential for large-scale additive manufacturing, which will make constructing complex components much simpler. In addition, the process has less environmental impact, allows for new designs, integrates various functions in a single part, uses less material, and provides saving both in weight and costs.

“With this 3D additive manufacturing demonstrator, Stelia Aerospace aims to provide its customers with innovative designs on very large structural parts derived from new calculation methods,” says Cédric Gautier, CEO of Stelia Aerospace. “Through its R&T department, and thanks to its partners, Stelia Aerospace is therefore preparing the future of aeronautics, with a view to develop technologies that are always more innovative and will directly impact our core business, aerostructures.”

The panel was constructed as part of the DEveloppement de la Fabrication Additive pour Composant TOpologique (DEFACTO) project to demonstrate the viability of large-scale 3D printing in aerospace design and manufacturing.

>>By David Szondy, New Atlas, Feburary 19, 2018


3 Roles for Computer Vision in Metal 3D Printing

In additive manufacturing, the microstructure of a part is critical to that part’s properties, performance and quality. The better microstructure can be understood and controlled, the more repeatable the AM process becomes. Research currently underway at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) is exploring how computer vision—the use of computational algorithms to sense visual information—could be applied to advance understanding of microstructures in powder-bed metal 3D printing.

In the video below, Elizabeth Holm, professor of materials science and engineering at CMU, shares three applications for computer vision in AM materials, process control and quality control. Learn more about Holm’s research in applying computer vision and machine learning to metal powders.

>> By Stephanie Hendrixson, Additive Manufacturing, 1/19/2018

Volumetric 3D printing builds on need for speed

By using laser-generated, hologram-like 3D images flashed into photosensitive resin, researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, along with academic collaborators, have discovered they can build complex 3D parts in a fraction of the time of traditional layer-by-layer printing. With this process, researchers have printed beams, planes, struts at arbitrary angles, lattices and complex and uniquely curved objects in a matter of seconds.

While additive manufacturing (AM), commonly known as 3D printing, is enabling engineers and scientists to build parts in configurations and designs never before possible, the impact of the technology has been limited by layer-based printing methods, which can take up to hours or days to build three-dimensional parts, depending on their complexity.

However, by using laser-generated, hologram-like 3D images flashed into photosensitive resin, researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), along with collaborators at UC Berkeley (link is external), the University of Rochester (link is external) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (link is external) (MIT), have discovered they can build complex 3D parts in a fraction of the time of traditional layer-by-layer printing. The novel approach is called “volumetric” 3D printing, and is described in the journal Science Advances (link is external), published online Dec. 8.

“The fact that you can do fully 3D parts all in one step really does overcome an important problem in additive manufacturing,” said LLNL researcher Maxim Shusteff, the paper’s lead author. “We’re trying to print a 3D shape all at the same time. The real aim of this paper was to ask, ‘Can we make arbitrary 3D shapes all at once, instead of putting the parts together gradually layer by layer?’ It turns out we can.”

The way it works, Shusteff explained, is by overlapping three laser beams that define an object’s geometry from three different directions, creating a 3D image suspended in the vat of resin. The laser light, which is at a higher intensity where the beams intersect, is kept on for about 10 seconds, enough time to cure the part. The excess resin is drained out of the vat, and, seemingly like magic, researchers are left with a fully formed 3D part.

The approach, the scientists concluded, results in parts built many times faster than other polymer-based methods, and most, if not all, commercial AM methods used today. Due to its low cost, flexibility, speed and geometric versatility, the researchers expect the framework to open a major new direction of research in rapid 3D printing.

Volumetric 3D printing creates parts by overlapping three laser beams that define an object’s geometry from three different directions, creating a hologram-like 3D image suspended in the vat of resin. The laser light, which is at a higher intensity where the beams intersect, is kept on for about 10 seconds, enough time to cure the object.

“It’s a demonstration of what the next generation of additive manufacturing may be,” said LLNL engineer Chris Spadaccini, who heads Livermore Lab’s 3D printing effort. “Most 3D printing and additive manufacturing technologies consist of either a one-dimensional or two-dimensional unit operation. This moves fabrication to a fully 3D operation, which has not been done before. The potential impact on throughput could be enormous and if you can do it well, you can still have a lot of complexity.”

With this process, Shusteff and his team printed beams, planes, struts at arbitrary angles, lattices and complex and uniquely curved objects. While conventional 3D printing has difficulty with spanning structures that might sag without support, Shusteff said, volumetric printing has no such constraints; many curved surfaces can be produced without layering artifacts.

“This might be the only way to do AM that doesn’t require layering,” Shusteff said. “If you can get away from layering, you have a chance to get rid of ridges and directional properties. Because all features within the parts are formed at the same time, they don’t have surface issues.

“I’m hoping what this will do is inspire other researchers to find other ways to do this with other materials,” he added. “It would be a paradigm shift.”
Shusteff believes volumetric printing could be made even faster with a higher power light source. Extra-soft materials such as hydrogels could be wholly fabricated, he said, which would otherwise be damaged or destroyed by fluid motion. Volumetric 3D printing also is the only additive manufacturing technique that works better in zero gravity, he said, expanding the possibility of space-based production.

The LLNL logo in 3D printed technology.

The technique does have limitations, researchers said. Because each beam propagates through space without changing, there are restrictions on part resolution and on the kinds of geometries that can be formed. Extremely complex structures would require lots of intersecting laser beams and would limit the process, they explained.

Spadaccini added that additional polymer chemistry and engineering also would be needed to improve the resin properties and fine tune them to make better structures.

“If you leave the light on too long it will start to cure everywhere, so there’s a timing game,” Spadaccini said. “A lot of the science and engineering is figuring out how long you can keep it on and at what intensity, and how that couples with the chemistry.”

The work received Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program funding. Additional LLNL researchers who contributed to the project were Todd Weisgraber and Robert Panas, Lawrence Graduate Scholar and University of Rochester Ph.D. student Allison Browar, UC Berkeley graduate students Brett Kelly and Johannes Henriksson, along with Nicholas Fang at MIT.

>> This article by Jeremy Thomas, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory News, December 8, 2017