Léonie Hilsdon discusses how polymer additive manufacturing is driving forwards the development of innovative robotic hardware
Globally, the robotics manufacturing field is becoming increasingly competitive, driving engineers to focus on enhancing versatility, accuracy, longevity and performance. However, for both use and innovation, the UK still lags Europe, Asia and the USA.
With the announcement that the UK Government is putting up £6 million in grants towards late-stage robotics and automation innovation projects, it follows that a surge in robot hardware development won’t be far behind.
Advantages Of Polymer Additive Manufacturing
Now that polymers are being created for real world applications, issues such as temperature resistance, tight tolerances and robustness are no longer significant concerns. Polymer parts are lighter, making the robot more energy efficient and cheaper to run. Add in the eradication of tooling costs for complex parts, and the benefits become significant.
Indeed, one US manufacturer of pipeline inspection robots has declared that using polymer additive manufacturing for components is on thousand times cheaper than using injection moulding. Warehousing specialist Ocado announced that its new 600 Series robot had over 300 parts created using HP’s Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) technology, massively increasing energy efficiencies and reducing costs.
With an increase in organic form requirements, particularly for robots performing human tasks, polymer additive manufacturing enables design freedom. It’s also quick, with prototyping to production times being as fast as one week. HP’s MJF, offering a build volume of 380x284x480mm in nylon and nylon composites, is ideal for complex end of arm tooling and electronic housing components.
Carbon’s Digital Light Synthesis (DLS) technology, meanwhile, is ideal for small, very detailed parts with tight tolerances, such as mounting brackets and pressure pad platforms. Carbon prints in an array of engineering resins, including flame-retardant epoxies, rigid polyurethanes and elastomers.
Carbon has also been collaborating in some specialist robotics innovation and production. Vienna-based Blue Danube Robotics’ Airskin technology models are industrial cobots, coated in a special pressure-sensitive skin. These highly customised robots were designed with 3D printing of component parts in mind. Having explored Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) as a production method, the company found that for smaller parts that required tight tolerances, such as pad sensors, mounting brackets, magnet holders, and cable clips, Carbon materials not only offered better elasticity in tiny parts and an opportunity for mass customisation; the clean-up operation was devoid of dust and much faster.
The Airskin production process requires the creation of multiple part groups which, in order to be a perfect fit, must be designed together. This includes sensor pads, with a wall thickness of less than 1mm; cable management and mounting brackets. The beauty of Carbon’s technology is that repeatability is exceptional, and Carbon software enables quick modifications during both design and production. The result is rapid prototyping; a smooth transition to production of custom parts and, crucially, an acceleration in production.
If automation is deemed the key to speeding up UK productivity; surely polymer additive manufacturing, with its rapid part production cycle, ability to reduce costs and enable complex customisation, is the key to speeding up robot innovation.
Léonie Hilsdon is with Paragon Rapid Technologies