It’s Now Possible to 3D Print a Pre-Assembled Robot

A new technique from MIT allows researchers to print liquid and solid materials at the same time.

Louise Matsakis

Louise Matsakis

A new 3D printing technique from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory has allowed researchers to "print" all of the parts of a robot, both solid parts like the body and liquid components such as hydraulic pumps, at the same time.

The result is rather marvelous: The researchers were able to print fully assembled robots, without any human intervention needed. "All you have to do is stick in a battery and motor, and you have a robot that can practically walk right out of the printer," said Daniela Rus, who oversaw the project and co-wrote the paper about the "printable hydraulics" technique.

The little six-legged robot depicted in MIT's video about the project "can crawl via 12 hydraulic pumps embedded within its body," meaning it has both solid and liquid parts. It weighs about 1.5 pounds and is less than half a foot long.

The challenge in 3D printing liquids is that it can be messy, and it's difficult to harden the solid portions of a structure without also affecting the liquid ones. One of the ways that the MIT researchers overcame this problem was by using a printer that has eight different print-heads, which can deposit different kinds of materials onto the structure at the same time.

"It gives us very fine control of material placement, which allows us to print complex, pre-filled fluidic channels," Robert MacCurdy, an MIT postdoc who co-wrote the paper about the project said in a news release.

One drawback of the method is that it took about 22 hours to print the little guy. In the future, the MIT researchers hope to improve printing times, likely by improving the printers themselves.

"The team envisions many potential applications, including disaster relief in dangerous environments," a spokesperson from MIT told Motherboard. "Many nuclear sites, for example, need to be remediated to reduce their radiation levels. Unfortunately, the sites are not only lethal to humans, but radioactive enough to destroy conventional electronics. Printable robots like these can be quickly, cheaply fabricated, with fewer electronic components than traditional robots."

In the meantime, it's pretty crazy that now machines are essentially capable of creating other machines.