3D Printed Tooling for Robots

July 27, 2023
Rapid Robotics uses Markforged 3D printers to produce custom tooling and grippers within 12 hours.

Applications for 3D printing/additive manufacturing has grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade—particularly for its use to produce production- and assembly-ready parts, not just prototypes. But as Zach Gray with Siemens Additive Manufacturing notes, 3D printing “will not replace all traditional types of manufacturing. The value of additive manufacturing (AM) applications depends on the use case,” he said. “The economics of AM are particularly suitable for products manufactured in individualized mass production or when single parts or small series are needed.”

Learn about determining 3D printing's viability for specific applications.

This is a key niche for 3D printing—producing parts that are difficult and/or expensive to make with traditional manufacturing processes. And that’s behind Rapid Robotics’ use of Markforged 3D printers to produce custom grippers for its robots based on the end user’s application.

According to Jordan Kretchmer, co-founder and CEO, Rapid Robotics, end of arm tooling and part manipulation is “one of the most complex parts of programming a robot. You can buy grippers off the shelf, and they range from $3,500 up to $50,000 or $60,000 depending on the complexity of the gripper. But then you have to wait for two- or three-month lead times to get that gripper in before you can even start programming it into the arm.” He adds that these grippers can arrive with inherent issues, such as not being designed for the specific parts you need to manipulate.

Another key factor that led Rapid Robotics, which provides robots-as-a-service to small and medium-sized manufacturers, to 3D print its end of arm tools is the diversity of its customer base. The company’s customers produce a variety of products, ranging from frisbees and PCR chips for COVID tests to printed circuit boards, medical devices and automotive parts.

“No two deployments are the same for us and every robot is fully customized,” says Kretchmer. “We need Markforged to get our robots to fit to any solution possible.”

Taylor Parker, mechanical engineer at Rapid Robotics, has worked with several different 3D printers over her career. She says the Markforged printers stand out based on the quality of the build plate, the adhesion and material quality. “What I really like about the Onyx material is that it can take a lot of shear force and holds up better than any other material we’ve used.”

Onyx is Markforged’s principal composite base material made of a micro carbon fiber filled nylon. Markforged says Onyx “yields accurate parts with near flawless surface finish” adding that more than a million Onyx parts are in use in manufacturing today.

“We've been deploying robots with grippers that were printed on Markforged printers since day one and we have never had a gripper break in the field,” notes Kretchmer.

Rapid Robotics has 10 Markforged 3D printers in its San Francisco location and 15 in its Detroit office. Kretchmer says Rapid Robotics can create a new gripper within 12 hours that is “a perfect fit that's going to be highly reliable and also weighs about 30% of the total weight of an off-the-shelf gripper.”

About the Author

David Greenfield, editor in chief | Editor in Chief

David Greenfield joined Automation World in June 2011. Bringing a wealth of industry knowledge and media experience to his position, David’s contributions can be found in AW’s print and online editions and custom projects. Earlier in his career, David was Editorial Director of Design News at UBM Electronics, and prior to joining UBM, he was Editorial Director of Control Engineering at Reed Business Information, where he also worked on Manufacturing Business Technology as Publisher. 

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