During the recent Wonderful Robot Carnival here, we had the chance to chat with some 3D printing experts about the new i.materialise service that's bringing professional quality model creation down into a price range that's affordable for small design shops and even hobbyists.
They showed us several test pieces, robot body shell armor specifically designed for use with the popular Kondo KHR-3HV humanoid robot, and explained the process. Of course the same techniques could be used to create parts for almost any robot.
Here's a short video covering this exciting new development:
Really exciting things are taking place in 3D modeling that promise to bring the creation of on-off objects into the price range of small design studios, artists, and even robot hobbyists.
Of course, if you are a major manufacturer or architectural firm, it's easy to justify spending 20 thousand dollars, or more, for a leading edge 3D printer. But that's way out of reach for smaller companies, and only a distant dream for individuals.
The invention of extremely low cost 3D printing systems, like the MakerBot and RepRap, have generated tremendous publicity and excitement. But, they require a considerable investment in time, expertise, and money. Users have to be ready to spend roughly a thousand dollars on a MakerBot.
If you happen to be a 'maker', and love the creative experience like we do, then you definitely welcome the chance to spend a week or so assembling, testing, and debugging the MakerBot. It's roughly similar to our experience years ago building ham radios from surplus electronic parts.
But, if your main interest is in creating the finished parts, and in seeing your creation manifest itself as an actual physical thing, you might be a little put off by going the MakerBot route.
Thankfully the 3D printer manufacturers, like Materialise, have recognize that there is a large potential market going untapped. We caught up with the folks from i.Materialise at a recent robot competition here in Japan to hear about their new 3D printing service.
They gave us a close-up look at sample parts, robot body armor pieces, that were created using open source 3D modeling software, then produced using the i.materialise printing system. They deliberately went through the same process as a private individual, designer, or hobbyist.
The body parts, in this case designed to fit a Kondo KHR-3HV humanoid robot, were designed on a home PC in Japan, then uploaded to the i.materialise website for printing. The system analysed the part and provided the user with the cost before actually producing the part.
The actual cost varies based on the relative size of the part. Thicker parts require more layers which takes more time and a slightly higher cost. For each of the same parts used for the test, the cost was roughly USD$100 each. That included the processing, shipping, and handling.
The printing took place at the Materialise facility in Europe, but the finished parts were delivered to Japan within 2–3 days. The company plans to install printers in countries around the world as local demand for the service grows.
This makes the process competitive for single users or even small groups in comparison with the dedicated RepRap/MakerBot model. For large, active organization like a big city hackerspace there might be sufficient demand for 3D printing to justify buying a MakerBot, or even several MakerBots. But, if you only expect to print a few parts infrequently, then the i.materialise service has some definite advantages.
One distinct advantage of this service is the part quality and finish. Since the parts are printed on the same machines used by professionals, the part quality is top class. The parts require less polishing and finishing, and they can also include sharper angles and more complex surfaces.
Another, often overlooked, advantage is that the i.materialise printing process deposits a full layer of material for each vertical step along the z-axis. This provides a firm base for forming each successive layer. With RepRap type printers, the melting plastic has to bridge open spaces without any underlying support which can result in a warped or less stable part.
One outstanding question for both 3D printing processes is the strength of the material, particularly for mounting. Robots often experience significant shock and vibration. ROBO-ONE humanoids, for example, tend to develop stress cracks at the corners of key frame members and screw bosses.
While 3D printed parts are definitely suitable for low stress, decorative applications, it remains to be seen whether or not they will hold up in battle.
All things considered, the i.materialise 3D printing service looks like a very reasonable and cost effective alternative for producing small quantity unique parts, like robot body armor, with fast turn around. It's definitely worth checking out to see if it meets your needs.