By | Amadu Sou
The researchers from the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) remodeled a laser CNC machine into a hybrid additive subtractive test system that can cut, print, and assemble electronic systems and robots such as drones.
The project is named LaserFactory and is based around the idea of maximum automation of manufacturing and assembling processes. No one mentions 3D printing basic parts but the prototype can cut parts from an acrylic sheet, print conductive tracks and install electronic and electronic-mechanical components and do laser soldering. An electric circuit assembly kit that fabricates conductive tracks using silver ink can be installed on the head of a regular laser cutter.
“Making fabrication inexpensive, fast, and accessible to a layman remains a challenge. […] 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,” says Ph.D. student Martin Nisser, one of the project authors.
One of the illustrative examples of the system’s capabilities is manufacturing a drone that can take off right after being assembled. At first, a virtual 3D model is built: the components from a digital database are placed where they should be, and circuits are designed afterward with the frame contour being deleted at the end of the process. The next step makes it possible for a user to utilize the preview feature, allowing them to see in order of cutting, assembling, and soldering. The software will generate a set of machine-readable commands when everything is ready. If successful, this technology could be applied towards a number of manufacturing practices such as automotive testing and development services.
“Beyond engineering, we’re also thinking about how this kind of one-stop-shop for fabrication devices could be optimally integrated into today’s existing supply chains for manufacturing, and what challenges we may need to solve to allow for that to happen,” says Martin Nisser. “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 the software.”
If there’s one thing that the prototype lacks, then it’s an ability to fully 3D print complex geometrical shapes, and the developers plan to fix it in the next version. The work on the project is supported by the National Science Foundation, Microsoft, and the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences. The report by the team will be presented at the 2021 Conference on Human Factors in Computing System hosted by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).