Following on the last post about whether a lack of R&D will kill 3D printing, recently, iRobot filed a patent application for what is almost an ‘automatic espresso machine’ of 3D printing – a stab at a fully autonomous printer. It’s exciting because (patents vs. ‘open source’ debate aside) this is exactly the direction things need to move. As the specification notes:
A portion of typical three-dimensional printing manufacturing processes are currently automated. However, most products are not manufactured by fully automated means. Human intervention and labor is almost always required. In traditional 3D printing, designs must still be divided into parts for production, and a trained individual assembles the fabricated parts into the final product after printing. (link; emphasis added)
The iRobot application has two independent claims, claim 1 and claim 14, both involving the use of two manipulators. One manipulator is responsible for reorientation of the item and the other handles “pick-and-place” of additional components and “secondary manufacturing operations such as wire placement and hardware testing.” A quick read suggests that a large part of what is claimed relates to the ability to accomplish functions such as reorientation of the object being printed without manual intervention.
There can’t be a widespread 3D printing revolution until it is dead simple to print. It’s the same reason that the internet really exploded because of the World Wide Web. What this kind of advanced simplicity really allows is technological convergence – the combination of once-discrete technologies into much more powerful systems. And that’s how we’ll end up with the killer apps for 3D printing.