A 3D printer is a type of robot — at least by most definitions of the word. Yet, most of us only use our 3D printers for one purpose: 3D printing. Many other automated tools, including laser cutters, CNC mills, and pick-and-place machines, are mechanically similar to 3D printers. It would be beneficial if you could take advantage of that fact to expand the capabilities of your 3D printer. That’s exactly what researchers from Tokyo’s Meiji University have done, as explained in their paper “A 3D Printer Head as a Robotic Manipulator.”
There are many machines on the market that are capable of 3D printing and other functions, but they usually require that you swap out modules between jobs. For example, you might 3D-print a part and then swap in a laser engraver module for a separate job. This paper describes a system in which the 3D printer can fabricate multiple parts. One or more of those parts are robotic end effectors. The printer is equipped with special add-ons that can be used to attach or detach the end effectors — all as part of a single job.
That capability opens up some interesting possibilities. The machine can 3D print the parts that are needed to make a complex machine along with the necessary end effector, and then use that end effector to assemble the parts. It can even operate that machine after assembly. Theoretically, the only modifications that need to be made to the 3D printer itself are the attachment and detachment add-ons. Everything else can be done with standard G-code commands. A system like this would make it possible to use your 3D printer as both a printer and an assembly robot. There are limitations that come from the lack of actuation on the end effectors, but that can usually be overcome through thoughtful design.