The IRB 120 is the smallest sixaxis robot currently available commercially from ABB ABB

The IRB 120 is the smallest six-axis robot currently available commercially from ABB.

Additive Manufacturing + Robotic Programming = A Neat Composite Solution

A Silicon Valley additive manufacturing firm figures out how to incorporate robots into a scalable solution for 3-D printing thermoplastic parts.

Not long ago, Hemant Bheda received a request from a large oil and gas customer to develop a complex, composite material. That Bheda received the request wasn't unusual — he was deep into work at the time for a company that manufactured high-performance materials — but the request itself most definitely was.

"I looked at it," Bheda said, "and I looked at the properties, and I said, 'You guys are very, very smart, and you know this is not possible. Why are you asking me about this?' And they said, 'Because you guys are doing some amazing things.'" They wanted a PEEK material with a very high tensile strength and modulus beyond what was then available. After more conversation, Bheda reached the conclusion that, at the time, he couldn't fill their request, but it remained near the front of his mind. Even after turning down the job, he still wanted to solve all its composite conundrums.

Today, Bheda is the founder and CEO of Arevo Labs, a Silicon Valley leader in the development of composite additive manufacturing technology, and he might just have the software and hardware to solve that old problem — and plenty of new ones, too.

Arevo has partnered with ABB Robotics over the last 18 months to marry its proprietary CAM software with a six-axis robotic system to produce scalable composite parts. The robot — Arevo recommends an ABB IRB 120 — controls a high-performance, carbon-fiber nozzle designed to print composite thermoplastic parts.

"The technology allows, for the first time, the orientation of the carbon fibers, so we needed software to take advantage of that," Bheda said. "We realized that a robotic arm with a fixed axis not only helped us ship a better part but, because of the scalability of the robot, also enabled us to make very small parts and very large parts."

The system is geared for aerospace and defense, oil and gas, and medical, and is applicable to parts from 1,000 cubic millimeters to eight cubic meters — about one-tenth the size of a gumball to about 50 times the size of a bathtub.

Nicolas De Keijser, new applications business line manager for ABB, worked with Bheda and Arevo from early 2014 to now, and described the company's "niche" as "relevant to the industry, not just for hobby reasons or non-manufacturing reasons. It's important to us that robots are put in a relevant industrial setting." He and ABB loaned out a robot for development purposes.

For now, those robots are the first anywhere to be incorporated into an additive manufacturing platform designed to create composite parts. The parts, Bheda said, are stronger than parts printed with standard Cartesian-based technology, and will also be printed with reduced striation and stepping.

Within the next year or two, Bheda forecasts that larger robots could be used (the IRB 120 is the smallest six-axis robot currently available commercially from ABB), though he thinks multiple robots will be implemented first, "to speed up the construction, and/or to fill multiple functions, like construction and finishing, … or even to have one robot holding an object while a second constructs it, which would give us increased flexibility into creating more complex objects."

Which means more features, stronger parts and better solutions.

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