Given the size of the development effort, and the limited resources, the project is expected to have 5 phases of development:
- Phase 1: Prototype System, followed by a funding effort
- Phase 2: Funded refinement and new machines, materials handling, niche users
- Phase 3: External systems: power generation, recycling, mobility.
- Phase 4: Verticals for Agriculture, Materials Harvest, Construction, others
- Phase 5: System Capabilities Refinement
Phase 1 – Detail
This effort will focus on three broad sub-projects
- System Design
- Hardware Prototypes
- Control Software
System design has been an evolving effort since about 2008
The Hardware Prototypes got off to a slow start, since I was told by knowledgeable people that this portion of the project would likely require 3 man years of effort and cost about 3 million USD.
Had the project had been done in a conventional corporate engineering fashion, they would have been right. As things stand, I have largely built the hardware from salvaged/reclaimed materials at an industrial recycler over the last 3 1/2 years after spending nearly 3 years pitching the project to local VCs and trying to recruit volunteers, so it goes!
The control software, paradoxically, is probably the easiest part of the system to “build” since there are several rich tools in open source that are field proven and working. This part is an integration effort, more than a creative one.
The open source resources identified thus far are:
- 3D Printer: Octoprint, This is running the 4 existing 3D printers.
- Mill, Lathe CNC machines: Machinekit/LinuxCNC
- Delta Robot, Pallet Conveyors: ROS (Robot Operating System)
- System simulator and dynamic visual system state display: ROS rviz/Gazebo
- System State Reporting: MTConnect (open state machine standards)
- Future features: post G-Code models for variable fabrication: STEP-NC
All the active components in the system will publish their state. (similar to this SwRI diagram)
That State information then drives:
- The dynamic assignment of sequential (or parallel) tasks within a job
- parallel assignments across individual machine queue’s as they complete tasks across jobs.
- synchronized simulation running in ROS (rviz/gazebo) for system visualization.
This also allows for simulated activity, as well as near-real-time display of machine operations occurring within the system, and should open the door to “playback” of activity for optimization and other analytical functions.
Phase 2 – Detail
Funding, Design Refinement, New Designs, Materials Handling
Phase 2 will have some overlap with phase 1’s activities, in that many of the small refinements are a continuation of features produced by phase 1. (mechanical latches vs. “joining plates”) as an example refinement.
The overall goals however, are to raise enough funding to re-evaluate the engineering and designs for better function, marketability, and manufacturability.
(example: LIF (Low Insertion Force) sockets for the backplane, the existing, salvaged ones have a 75lb insertion force, they will work for the prototypes, but not long term)
Additionally, expanding the range of function to cover more of whats necessary to get the system to reproduce a larger percentage of its own components.
While increasing the range of capabilities to address a broader set of processes for product manufacturing. Since these machines are intended for low volume local production, process diversity is more important than units per hour. some basic free ranging robotic platforms will be refined and deployed in this phase
Phase 3 – Detail
External systems: power generation, recycling, mobility.
Several “open” machines need to be added as digital templates, so that sheet, tube, bar and rod stock can be pre-processed ergo: panel saw, cold saw, band saw, plasma table, waterjet, et al. The expectation being that handling systems, roller lines and machines will conform to the standard incremental “footprint” 1.2 meter, 2.4 meter, and some recycling processes that follow the same guidelines.
An important objective is the creation of recursive designs suitable to manufacture in challenging economies (Central steppes, Africa, Madagascar, Rural Asia, Rural South America, Pennsyltucky, Montana (my home state!)) until that time, areas as close to these as possible with more robust infrastructure will be used. (example: South Africa, Kenya)
Things like a wire based metal 3D printer will likely help this along, I have a design in mind using a modified wire welder, drawing wire from remelt in an induction loop is a reasonable approach in turning scrap-to-goods, many details must be addressed, but there is a reasonably high likelihood a workable system can be created. Cheap analytical capabilities (laser spectroscopy?) will bring this closer to reality.
Robots are expected to reach a functional support status in this phase, mobile platform designs already exist, but building and testing will wait until other core functions are fully operational.
Phase 4 – Detail
Phase 5 – Detail