The holy grail of manufacturing technology is a system capable of producing entire functional devices on demand without any human labor. In some sense, modern automated assembly lines achieve that to a degree. But they have to be setup for a specific device and usually require at least some human labor. 3D printing allows for on-demand fabrication of plastic parts, but humans are still need to assemble those parts and to integrate electronic components. To streamline the entire process, engineers from MIT’s CSAIL (Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory) have developed LaserFactory, which can automatically fabricate entire functional robots and other devices.
LaserFactory is essentially a self-contained robot that combines the rapid prototyping, circuit printing, and component placement. It’s a bit like if you mashed together a laser cutter or 3D printer with a pick-and-place machine and a PCB fabrication machine. With those all working together, functional devices can be rapidly manufactured on demand. Unlike an automated assembly line, LaserFactory can easily switch from one device design to another without any retooling. That makes it incredibly useful for creating prototypes, because “printing” a revised design is just as easy as printing a previous design. Even for small scale manufacturing, LaserFactory would be desirable. If a problem is found and a design needed to be tweaked, there is no downtime or money required to switch to the new revision.
The current version of LaserFactory has a laser cutter that is used to fabricate the mechanical parts from plastic sheets like acrylic. An add-on extruder module prints silver circuit traces directly onto those parts, which eliminates the need for wires. A modified pick-and-place machine vacuum mechanism can place electronic components onto the traces and before the laser cures the silver, similar to heating solder paste during traditional SMD assembly. The pick-and-place machine is also able to manipulate the laser-cutter parts. It can, for example, place a lid-like piece of acrylic on top of an enclosure. The laser can then be used to melt the acrylic and secure the lid in place. By very carefully heating the acrylic with the laser, the machine can also bend and fold the plastic to form three-dimensional geometry.
The team demonstrated the capabilities of LaserFactory by fabricating a complete drone that was able to fly away right off the machine without any human intervention. It started by laying down the silver circuit traces onto acrylic. The electronic components, like the flight controller and motors, were then put in place. From there, the laser was used to cure the traces and then cut out the drone’s acrylic frame. This does require that the electronic components be setup specifically for this kind of task, but that’s a fairly minor constraint. Most importantly, all of this functionality was handled by a standard laser cutter with just a handful of affordable modifications.