A 6-axis robotic arm capable to 3D print glass fiber composites

+LAB, the 3D printing lab of Politecnico di Milano, introduces  Atropos, a revolutionary robotic arm inspired by nature and silkworms, and controlled by the artifact intelligence of special algorithms, which fluently moves in space depositing a continuous fiber of thermosetting composite material, instantly cured as it comes out of his head.

Atropos, in Greek mythology one of the three Moirai, is a new six-axis robotic arm born from the collaboration with KUKA, for the robotic arm, and Owens Corning, for the glass fibers.

The innovation of this process lays in not needing molds, combined with the high mechanical performances of composite materials. Producing every object different from the other is now possible, opening to new possibilities in fields where both characteristics are necessary. 

The idea
Trying to achieve the best results with the least material is our original idea: nature offers many examples of this approach, and some of these solutions are based on fibers indeed. Spider silk and silkworms are one of the classical examples, as well as other creations of nature like trees and leaves, as our muscles and tendons are fibrous.

A 6-axis robotic arm capable to 3D print glass fiber composites

By studying the natural behavior of silkworms, the idea of using a six-axis robot came naturally. The possibilities of movements allowed by the robot, while maintaining the head free of excessive mechanisms, has been one of the key factors to succeed in this additive manufacturing process.

The number of axis allows for movements otherwise impossible, making feasible to deposit the fibers in the direction of stresses, optimizing the performance and the material consumption.

The material
Continuous fiber composites have peculiar characteristics that can be exploited to obtain high-performing materials. One of the most important features of this class of materials is their intrinsic anisotropy, in fact, fibers have a high elongation stiffness and tensile strength, but they offer lower resistance to compression or to mechanical stresses in the perpendicular direction.

Today the +Lab is using fibers made of glass and basalt (kindly supplied by Owens Corning and GS4C), embedded in an acrylic photocurable resin. Researchers are also working to expand the usable materials: in particular they want to process fibers made of carbon and polyaramides but also natural fibers such as bamboo. They are also investigating epoxy resins as possible matrices for the composites.

State of art and beyond
The objects produced by this process do not need any mold. The item can then be subject to further processes, such as lay-ups, or left as it is, ready to be completed with final additions. The anisotropy of the material is designed pointwise

It is possible to better optimize the internal and external shape of the object, according to the requirements. It is also possible to analyze the object with FEM software, discovering the stress lines and placing the fiber congruently to their direction.The non-linear slicing approach allows the creation of a smart path that build the whole structure with a continuous long fiber, or different ones where required.

The process
The process starts from the design of the object inside Rhinoceros, a 3D modeling software, and thanks to the potentiality of the graphical algorithms editor Grasshopper and KUKA|prc, the data for the tool, path, and motion is generated. Following the patented idea from +Lab, fibers are soaked with a special resin by a system of reservoirs and mechanisms carrying them to the printing head. The robot then starts to place the fibers in the space, moving the head towards the designed toolpath, meanwhile, a UV source induces the photocuring of the composite. The rapidity of the polymerization allows printing freeform in space, reducing, or even abandoning, the needing of supports. The process is scalable, in order to obtain extremely precise structure or, on the other hand, to obtain large complex products, similarly to the automated fiber placement process, without the bounds of a mold and or any service structure.

Atropos: Smart Manufacturing of Continuous Fiber Composites, is the winner of JEC Innovation Award 2017 in 3D Printing category.

Companies: +LAB

Technologies: Other Processing Method

Terms: Innovations

This article has been edited by Basalt.Today
This article has been written on JEC Composites Magazine
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