A project at the Centre for Fine Print Research (CFPR) based at the University of the West of England, (UWE) Bristol UK is looking at 3D printing from a totally different angle – where the emphasis is placed on meaningful expression, rather than the accurate reproduction of digital data. A flexible Mitsubishi Electric MELFA RV-Series articulated arm industrial robot is at the center of the project.
3D printing is generally a very precisely controlled process, both in terms of the type of movement (steady acceleration and velocity) and the deposition of materials.
Conversely, the Centre for Fine Print Research (CFPR) project is looking at 3D printing from the viewpoint of the Arts, where the emphasis is placed on meaningful expression. A good analogy to the project would be the potter’s wheel, where the artist works in direct contact with clay and with an intimate understanding of the constraints of working the material and the wheel in synergy.
Here, the artist is able to express something with the material, often pushing the material to its limits, for example by generating sweeping elegant forms, or revealing new material qualities, such as translucency. The CFPR has background expertise in ceramics, photo-cure resins and thermoplastics, all of which are being investigated with the robotic platform.Using a 3D printer in ‘unusual ways’ means moving beyond simply using CAD models and slicing algorithms, as these are too automated. By writing proprietary software, it is possible to develop printing methods from the point of view of how the material can be expressively played with.
In order to achieve this shifted perspective, the project is using a Mitsubishi Electric MELFA RV-7FLM robot arm to research technologies and techniques to sense and manipulate materials in a dynamic way, rather than deposit them in fixed, rigid or ‘machine-like’ ways. The robot is running printer paths defined by proprietary software and requires a high degree of automation and real-time responsiveness.
“By pushing 3D printable materials to their limits, we have exposed unexpected properties in the materials,” says Dr Paul O’Dowd, Research Fellow – Creative Electronics and Engineering. “For instance, plastic deposition can be manipulated whilst it is hot and pulled into hairs, or fine gauss, or woven. Ceramics can also be deposited so that the material composition is capable of self-glazing in a single firing (as opposed to a multiple firing process). These material states may have applications in wider industry.”
The task of robotically manipulating materials through complex states – for example, sensing and responding to viscosity – requires the integration of several advanced technologies. The MELFA robot allows real-time control and provides a reliable programming interface to allow this to happen. It also has a large area of reach and movement for a compact robot arm.
“The Mitsubishi Electric robot arm manipulates materials from all directions,” continues O’Dowd. “Conventionally 3D Printers are machines with three linear axis (XYZ) and fabrication occurs in fixed horizontal layers. But the RV Series robot arm has both freedom of movement and a comprehensive set of expansion capabilities, including pneumatics and digital I/O, which are cleanly integrated into the chassis of the arm itself. This makes for an attractive combination of force control, movement range (908 mm reach) and reliability, while also being at the right price point.”Proprietary software is being developed which must respond quickly and dynamically to changes in the material’s properties and the construction of the printed object. This means that the control program cannot be rigid in its operation. Instead it must constantly and iteratively interpret its working task environment and autonomously correct its behavior.
Commenting on his selection of the Mitsubishi Electric robot, Dr. O’Dowd said, ‘We researched several robot manufacturers before deciding on the Mitsubishi Electric model, we were looking for flexibility of movement as well as an open programming environment. What really decided it for us though was the affordability of the robot package and the level of support provided by Mitsubishi Electric. We were invited to the UK HQ to assess a robot and have received excellent technical support throughout the project. As the robot is pushed further we will continue to call on training and advice as we need it.’
The Mitsubishi Electric robot proved a useful tool to help create artistic objects using PLA, a bio-degradable type of plant-based thermoplastic used in 3D printers. The development team used the full extent of the robot’s movement to push the material beyond its normal operating envelope and create new effects. The intuitive and easy to use programming interface meant that it worked well with software developed by the university team that altered the deposition speed to pull the material into fine filaments. The same set-up is planned to be used for developing artistic creations with ceramics and photo-cure resins, the production process for which could then feed-back to commercial industrial applications.