Swarm Robotics and 3D Printers
How two technologies can change the world
March 19, 2019, Mandla Reissmann
Swarm Robotics and 3D printing are forming an intersection between teams of robots (swarms) and robots that produce physical products from conceptual designs. They are able to produce from a growing variety of different materials. The streamlined production system made possible by 3D printing also reduces the distance between concept and a prototype. And there is also the possibility for greater efficiency of the production process. When teams of 3D printing robots act as an organised unit they gain the ability to carry out tasks far too complicated for an individual machine. For that reason, farms of 3D printers are emerging as a viable complement to traditional production methods.
Inspired By Nature
Futurist, trend-watcher, and keynote speaker Richard Van Hooijdonk, points out that inspiration for swarm 3D printing robotics comes from nature. In other words, robots are designed to act like ants, cockroaches, bees and wasps in organised teams to complete common goals.
They are capable of self-organizing and communicating with one another to achieve that common, and often complex, goal. There are several implications of being able to replicate this type of natural behaviour. For instance, military applications come to mind, as well as translating virtual concepts into the real world. In medicine, swarms of nanobots could even help us fight diseases like cancer.
These ideas are already in research with promising results. Yet, there are some new challenges that come along with the technology.
There is already concern about automated machines replacing human workers as a future trend (a subject we have covered extensively here). But with swarms of robots, the effects could be even more pronounced.
Nevertheless, swarm robotics offers new solutions to real-world problems through flexibility, robustness, and scalability. Research is still needed to overcome hardware shortcomings that limit functionality as well as behavioural control. For instance, how does a human communicate with a swarm of robots when they encounter each other?
There are several possibilities that open up with the introduction of swarm robotics.
For example, farming and waste removal are well suited to the advantages specific to swarm technology. They could be excellent case studies of the success of this type of technology, applied in the real world. Imagine if we managed the plastic waste problem by having small robots collect plastic litter. These robots would mimic the way ants work collecting food.
Plus, looking into the future – say, 20 years, – there are some clear indications of potential in the 3D printing industry to deeply affect a wide range of fields. Areas like footwear, jewellery, architecture, engineering and construction, aerospace, dental and medical, education, consumer products, automotive design, and industrial design stand to gain the most. A tool-less process, such as that of 3D-printing, is likely to disrupt traditional manufacturing to an extent, as it is designed to bypass the need for assembly lines.
However, these advances don’t come without some controversy. There are some issues to solve before the full potential of 3D printing swarms is realised.
According to Chu Fang and Kumar, quality has always been questioned with 3D printing technology, as well as with the limited range of raw materials it can make use of. Common problems that need to be overcome in the next two decades include warping, stringing, gaps in top layers, under-extrusion, over-extrusion, pillowing, layer misalignment, among other physical defects.
Most commercially printed products are limited to one type of material. Which presents a problem since, for example, printed electronic goods would require the printing of multiple types of material. Although it is possible to imagine this technology at this moment, it’s not yet foreseeable. There will still be quite some time before you can print your own complete smartphone or any other complex electronic device. The further question still remains, how to handle post-production processes involved with creating hybrid devices (multiple materials) and bringing individual pieces together. In other words, so you printed all the pieces, but can you put them together?
The controversies of 3D printing are also surfacing in intellectual property laws, fabrication of weapons and drugs, compliance with safety regulations, and ethical considerations. For a design (the first step of 3D printing) to be protected as intellectual property in the United States, for example, it must qualify as a literary work.
Right now, CAD (Computer Aided Design) digital files are more likely to be considered under the definition of graphics or sculptural work.
The UK, however, is more open to the idea that CAD files can be protected. One might expect this to become universal in the future. The next point of contention is, for example, fabrication of weapons using 3D printers. Owning a gun may be legal in the United States but what are the rules about owning a gun design file? In Australia (New South Wales) a law has recently been enacted that bans gun design files as an amendment to the Firearms Act of 1996.
Going forward, countries will have to grapple with this question, as the technology evolves and becomes more widespread.
Finally, there are ethical issues that need to be considered.
The ethical considerations that are emerging are related to the more important uses of 3D printing, such as the possibility to download recipes and produce medicines in our own homes, or the possibility to print biological organs that could save lives.
So far, scientists have been able to print a trachea, ear cartilage, and urinary bladders. Ethically, we must always consider patient safety if using printed tissues and any complications that may arise. On top of that, drug-printing capabilities open the way for people to print other drugs than medicinal, perhaps even untested counterfeit drugs. Printed drugs would be difficult to regulate and as such possibly bring, on the one hand, a serious social benefit, with a serious criminal threat on the other. 3D-printed food is also foreseeable but challenging to regulate as most food products cannot go to market without testing.
It is clear that 3D-printing technology will continue to evolve and include robot swarms, as well as various other areas of research. We can be quite sure that, in the future, a variety of 3D-printed goods, whether medicinal, gastronomical, or a myriad of other possibilities will be found in every home. But for that, we need proper regulation, which has the potential to make 3D printing a tool for good, and not for worse.
Another future development worth mentioning is the invention of 4D printing, as pioneered by scientists like Skylar Tibbits at MIT. Printed objects have the added functionality of interacting with each other almost like a robot swarm. The fourth dimension is time and is well illustrated by examples from Tibbits’s laboratory (you can see more here). Examples include printed cubes that fold before your eyes, or pipes that able to sense the need to expand or contract. But this, of course, is still far into the future.
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