3D printing robots: Optimal robotic arms for factories

August 24, 2023
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What does a 3D Printing robot actually do?

In the simplest terms, 3D Printing robots are equipped with a 3D printing head which can extrude filament material, without the need for a traditional 3D Printing machine. Given the possible reach of robot arms, not to mention their flexibility and maneuverability, this is a great solution for large-scale 3D printing, sculpting and tricky objects like furniture.

You may also have heard of 3D Printing machine tending robots. Robot machine tending refers to a robot which loads, unloads and otherwise “tends” to a machine, in this case, a 3D Printing robot. 

These robots are especially useful in Industrial-scale 3D printing, where one robot can keep multiple printers running 24/7 and supplied with all the filament. Beyond this, a machine-tending robot does not enable new capabilities and is of course limited to what the actual 3D Printing machine can do.

In this article, we’ll talk specifically about 3D printing using a robot equipped with a printing head to take care of the extrusion of filament and complete a 3D printing run. For more on robotic machine tending of separate 3D printers, take a look at our wider guide to buying a Machine Tending robot.

Types of Industrial 3D Printing robots and their capabilities

There are two main types of robots appropriate for 3D printing applications:

Articulated robots have rotary joints that provide dexterity and a large range of motion, similar to a human arm. They’re ideal for complex 3D printing jobs that require flexibility and precision, with Six-Axis configurations being the most popular. Their multiple joints allow filament-dispensing end-effectors to be maneuvered into many orientations (More on this later).

Cartesian robots, also known as Gantry robots, have simple, rigid construction and move along three linear axes (X, Y, Z) on a track, which is often affixed to the ceiling. They’re well-suited for simple but large surface area 3D prints. Cartesian robots provide cost-effective high-precision products, yet their range of motion remains relatively constrained. 

Key considerations when evaluating a 3D Printing robot

No matter which type of robot you choose for your 3D printing application, there are a few common factors to consider between each model you evaluate.

Programming software

3D printing with robotics is a relatively new field, so you’ll want to consider how you’ll program the robot - programmers with this skill are few and far between. A robot’s manufacturer will be able to recommend the most compatible solution for your chosen robot model, but we always recommend a no-code programming solution and for 3D printing specifically, software which can have the robot follow a CAD model, just like a traditional 3D printer.

Reach

Reach refers to the total distance in which a robot can be effective - in this case, how far it can dispense and shape filament. Given that large-scale printing is one of the core benefits of using a 3D Printing robot over a conventional 3D printer, you’ll want to make sure you’ve got a robot with at least 1.3m of reach. If you need a significantly longer reach, consider a ceiling-mounted Cartesian robot.

Repeatability

In robotics, repeatability refers to the tolerance of precision a robot can adhere to. Typically, this is measured in millimeters. For example, RO1 by Standard Bots has a repeatability of 0.025mm. This is perhaps the most important specification for a 3D Printing robot, as without a tiny precision tolerance, your robot won’t be able to print with the intricacy and detail of a conventional 3D printer.

Payload capacity

Payload refers to the maximum weight the robot arm can support, including the weight of the end-effector. This is easily overlooked, but remember your robot will need to support an attached filament feeding mechanism and more. We’ll cover this in detail in the next section.

Safety features

For any industrial robot, safety is key. In scenarios involving close human-robot interactions, Collaborative robots are frequently favored for their inherent collision detection and emergency-halting capabilities. If you choose not to purchase a “Cobot”, you’ll want to consider other measures like safety fences, proximity sensors and emergency shut-off buttons.

Cost and support

Though 3D Printing robots are expensive upfront, their efficiency often leads to swift ROI. Prioritize manufacturers which offer comprehensive support, including financing alternatives, warranties, training, and service agreements. You’ll want a robot rated for a high number of “operational hours” or cycles. 

Comparing specs and getting quotes from multiple companies will help ensure you find an automation solution tailored to your needs and budget.

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Understanding 3D Printing robot end-effectors

When choosing a 3D Printing robot, one of the most important considerations is the end-effector. For 3D printing, the end-effector dispenses the printing material to build the layers that make up your 3D print. Here are a few common types of end-effectors used for 3D printing automation:

  • Extruders: Extruders, like those found on typical desktop 3D printers, push heated filament through a nozzle, and can print at higher speeds and volumes. Look for extruders specifically designed for Industrial 3D Printing robots.
  • Aerosol jet sprayers: These sprayers atomize inks or other printable liquids into tiny droplets, depositing ultra-fine details. They are great for electronics, biotech, and other applications requiring high resolution. However, the materials and process can be more expensive.
  • Pellet extruders: These extruders feed and melt plastic pellets instead of filament. They allow you to print at very high volumes using inexpensive raw materials. Pellet extruders require a consistent feed of pellets, so ensure any robot you consider can properly handle pellet feeding.

Regardless of your chosen end-effector, you’ll need to ensure that your robot has sufficient payload to handle the filament or pellet feeding mechanism and ensure that a separate power source is connected to the end-effector (most robot arms do not directly power the end-effector attached to them).

You may also need to program the extrusion head end-effector separately from the robot. This can be difficult since you’ll need the robot to move in “sync” with the end-effector. Your manufacturer of choice will be able to make recommendations here, but these tasks are best left to experienced robot programmers.

Top Industrial 3D Printing robot manufacturers

Now that you know what you need to compare across robot models, and the importance of choosing the right end-effector, let’s look at some of the top manufacturers of 3D Printing robots:

ABB

ABB is a leading Swiss company that produces Articulated robots well-suited for 3D printing applications. Their IRB series features robots with payloads of up to 250 kg that can handle most 3D printers. They provide training, programming, and technical support to help get their robots up and running.

FANUC

FANUC is a major Japanese robotics company that produces a wide range of Articulated robots for 3D printing. Their series includes the LR Mate, M-10, and ARC Mate models with various reach, payload, and mounting options. FANUC is known for reliability and high performance. They also offer Collaborative robots that can work alongside humans. 

KUKA

KUKA is a German robotics company that specializes in Six-Axis Articulated robots that are versatile and well-suited to handle most 3D printers. Their KR series includes over a dozen models with payloads up to 1,300 kg and reaches up to 3.9 m. KUKA’s robots are fast, precise, and energy efficient. They provide training, commissioning support, and KUKA College for learning how to program and integrate their robots.

Standard Bots

Standard Bots is an innovative robotics company based out of New York. Their RO1 Six-Axis robot is capable of moving heavier weights faster and more precisely than any robot in its competing class. The robot comes equipped with a vision system and no-code programming software, perfect for 3D printing applications.

These are a few of the top manufacturers, but there are many high-quality options for automating your 3D printing operations. Do some research on different robot specs and capabilities to determine what will work best for your specific setup and needs. 

Next steps

You now have the knowledge to determine what level of 3D printing automation is right for your factory floor! Don’t forget to consider the end-effectors and key factors like precision, speed, and cost to get the best ROI.

Interested in bringing a 3D Printing robot to your own business? RO1 by Standard Bots is a great choice for machine shops large and small:

  1. Affordable: RO1 is the most affordable robotic arm in its class, starting at almost half the price of incumbent competitors.
  2. Powerful: RO1 is faster and more precise than competitors, despite having the highest payload capacity in its class at 18 kg.
  3. Integrated: RO1 comes equipped with built-in relays to control almost any 3D Printer on the market, including plug-and-play support for OnRobot end-effectors and more.

Speak to our solutions team today to organize a free, 30-day onsite trial and get expert advice on everything you need to deploy your first robot.

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