MIT 3D-Printed a Robot That Can Move Around

It’s the first time anyone has simultaneously 3D printed both solids and liquids.

Lumbering around like an oversized insect, MIT’s latest robot doesn’t look all that impressive—until you learn that it’s 3D printed.

Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) have developed a way to, for the first time, simultaneously 3D print liquid and solid materials, allowing them to create functional, nearly assembly-free robots. With the help of a simple motor and crankshaft, the robots can even move around, converting fluid pressure into mechanical force.

“We can create really complicated mechanisms that do not require manual assembly, because the robot is actually almost fully functional when it comes out of the printer,” explains CSAIL Director and paper co-author Daniela Rus. “All you have to do is add a battery and a motor.”

Someday, you may not even have to do that. Rus says the new process, which uses ink jets to very specifically print certain materials in certain places, could potentially produce fully automatic machines in the future. “You would have the robot walk itself out of the printer,” she says.

Aside from being just plain cool, CSAIL’s innovation could have a huge impact on any industry that currently uses robots. (Think: medicine, navigation, the military.)

“When you don’t require assembly, adding complexity in a robot basically becomes free,” explains CSAIL post-doctoral associate and paper co-author Rob MacCurdy. “You don’t need to include each individual piece manually, so you can make incredibly complicated robots automatically. Therefore, you can make them incredibly functional.”

MacCurdy says he can picture a world when robots are disposable, made inexpensively and on-demand for tasks that are either too dangerous or too mundane for humans to complete.

“Maybe we can introduce this idea of single-use robots,” he says. “You might not care about putting robots into really hazardous circumstances, for example.”

Rus echoes her colleague, likening the burgeoning field to the developments in the paper printing industry.

“There was a time when printing and copying was really expensive, and we were doing a lot by hand,” she says. “Now, we don’t think twice about printing something.”