A New Spin on 3D Printing Weaves Objects without Supports
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on April 25, 2016 |
Automation company Festo has designed a 3D printer that extrudes material without support structures...

Some of the latest and greatest robots are inspired by nature’s creepiest, crawliest critters—or, at least that’s what German automation company Festo seems to believe. Their research and development team has unveiled yet another insect-inspired robotic design. After constructing small, 3D-printed BionicANTs that work together to accomplish big tasks, and eMotionButterflies that fly pre-programmed routes, Festo is now showing the 3D Cocooner, a new 3D printer that takes a cue from caterpillars to print shapes that are free from the constraints of a gantry or printbed.

The 3D Cocooner from Festo hardens a photopolymer around glass fiber thread into stiff rods. (Image courtesy of Festo/YouTube.)
The 3D Cocooner from Festo hardens a photopolymer around glass fiber thread into stiff rods. (Image courtesy of Festo/YouTube.)

The 3D Cocooner combines a specially designed spinneret, glass fibers and a photopolymer to 3D print freeform objects without support structures or the need to build on top of previously printed layers, as is the case with many 3D printing technologies. Attached to a large tripod and a kinematic arm system is a custom extrusion device through which glass fiber thread is fed. As the glass fiber is extruded, it is laminated with a UV-curing resin. Cured with a UV light at the head of this caterpillar-inspired spinneret, the fiber hardens into stiff rods.

The glass fiber is fed through the spinneret, laminated with photopolymer, and cured with a UV light. (Image courtesy of Festo/YouTube.)
The glass fiber is fed through the spinneret, laminated with photopolymer, and cured with a UV light. (Image courtesy of Festo/YouTube.)

After a 3D model is developed with custom parametric design software, the spinneret is programmed to follow a set design of design rules within certain parameters to ensure a structurally sound shape. According to Festo, their custom software can easily be manipulated by even a novice user. The software has been programmed to first virtually simulate the printing process, with variables such as speed, thread feed and the amount of resin set up appropriately. Once all of this is prepped, the 3D Cocooner prints the object, using 3D animation in Cinema 4D software to actually drive the mechanics of the device.

Parametric design software allows for the easy manipulation of 3D shapes to be fabricated by the 3D Cocooner. (Image courtesy of Festo/YouTube.)
Parametric design software allows for the easy manipulation of 3D shapes to be fabricated by the 3D Cocooner. (Image courtesy of Festo/YouTube.)

So, what are the benefits of such a device? For one, as with most 3D printing processes, the 3D Cocooner is capable of creating complex shapes that cannot be created using traditional manufacturing methods. However, the Festo system also removes any material waste that might result from unnecessary layers and support structures, thereby adding a new delicacy to 3D printing. The company states that the glass fiber, when laminated with the cured photopolymer, has great tensile strength, too.

In addition to fabricating lightweight structures, one could imagine that, added to an existing additive manufacturing setup, the 3D Cocooner might build intricate and complex details onto a build. If different types of 3D printing industrial robot arms were operating in unison, an ultra-fast stereolithography arm, like the one recently unveiled by 3D Systems, could pair with the 3D Cocooner to combine the benefits.

This design concept represents the potential for a 3D Cocooner system. (Image courtesy of Festo/YouTube.)
This design concept represents the potential for a 3D Cocooner system. (Image courtesy of Festo/YouTube.)

The 3D Cocooner is not the first 3D printer to create objects without support structures or base layers. Other notable examples include the MX3D system, which can draw three-dimensional shapes from resin or metal, and Branch Technology’s Cellular Fabrication technique, which extrudes plastic composites for architectural 3D printing. The Festo machine, however, combines support-free 3D printing with glass fiber, a novel combination that could yield strong, yet lightweight, objects.

To inspire dreams of multiple 3D printing robotic arms at work in a futuristic factory, the 3D Cocooner will actually be at Hannover Messe in Hannover, Germany, from April 25-29. Attendees will have the opportunity to see the new system, alongwith all the other industrial technology at the enormous trade fair.

About the Author

Michael Molitch-Hou is a 3D printing specialist and the founder of The Reality™ Institute, a service institute dedicated to determining what’s real and what’s not so that you don’t have to. He is a graduate of the MFA critical studies and writing program at CalArts, and a firm advocate of world peace.

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