Functgraph: Personal Factory Automation With a 3D Printer

Teaching a 3D printer to construct a sandwich, fold clothes, build a toy car, and more

2 min read
A 3D printer makes a sandwich
A 3D printer makes a sandwich.
Screenshot: Kuroki Yuto/YouTube

Over the past few years, we’ve seen 3D printers used in increasingly creative ways. There’s been a realization that fundamentally, a 3D printer is a full-fledged, multi-axis robotic manipulation system—which is an extraordinarily versatile thing to have in your home. Rather than just printing static objects, folks are now using 3D printers as pick-and-place systems to manufacture drones, and as custom filament printers to make objects out of programmable materials, to highlight just two examples.

In an update to some research first presented at the end of 2019, researchers from Meiji University in Japan have developed one of the cleverest 3D printer enhancements that we’ve yet seen. Called Functgraph, it turns a conventional 3D printer into a “personal factory automation” system by printing and manipulating the tools required to do complex tasks entirely on the print bed. A paper on Functgraph, by Yuto Kuroki and Keita Watanabe, was presented at the Conference on 4D and Functional Fabrication 2020 in October.

Far as I can tell, this is a bone-stock 3D printer with the exception of two modifications, both of which it presumably printed itself. The first is a tool holder on the print head, and the second is a tool release mechanism that sits off to the side. These two things, taken together, give Functgraph access to custom tools limited only by what it can print; and when used in combination with 3D printed objects designed to interact with these tools (support structures with tool interfaces to snap them off, for example), it really is possible to print, assemble, manipulate, and actuate entire small-scale factories.

Yuto Kuroki, first author on the paper describing Functgraph, describes his inspiration for some of the particular tasks shown in the demo video:

The future that Functgraph aims for is as a new platform that downloads apps like smartphones and provides physical support in the real world— the realization of personal factory automation. 

When it comes to sandwich apps, there are many ways to look at recipes, but in the end, humans have to make them. I made a prototype based on the idea of ​​how easy it would be if I could wake up in the morning saying "OK Google, make a breakfast sandwich." 

Regarding the rabbit factory, it’s an application that mass-produces and packs rabbit figures. The box on the right is an interior box to prevent the product from slipping, and the box on the left is an exterior box that is placed in the store and catches the eyes of customers. This is a realization that the manufactured figure is packed as it is and ready for shipment. In this video, two are packed in a row, so in principle it is possible to make hundreds or thousands of them in a row. 

The reason for making a prototype of an app to make a car is a strange story, but the idea is that if you send a 3D printer to a remote place like space, it will be able to generate what you need on the spot. Even if you’re exploring the Moon and your car breaks, I think that you can procure it on the spot again if you have a 3D printer, even without specialized knowledge, dedicated machines, and human hands. This research shows that 3D printers can realize individual desires and purposes unattended and automatically. I think that 3D printers can truly evolve into ‘machines that can do anything’ with Functgraph.

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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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