The robotic arm has been steadily working its way into the world of 3D printing. It’s already one of the preferred motion systems in large-format 3D printing of architectural components because there’s no confined build volume; the arm can simply be moved to expand its build area. Beyond their open build capabilities, robotic arms are extremely versatile in regards to the tools they can use. Nearly any tool can be attached to a robotic arm, from lasers to grippers. Unfortunately, most 3D printing robotic arms are large and expensive. But not so with Hexbot that’s currently live on Kickstarter.
Granted, Hexbot isn’t the first desktop robotic arm, but it is the first to have modular tool attachments that include a pen holder for writing and drawing, a laser for cutting and engraving, a suction cup for picking and placing, a soft gripper for handling irregular objects, and a hotend/extruder for 3D printing. That is a LOT of functionality from a desktop machine that costs $659 (on Kickstarter). It’s no wonder the campaign reached its funding goal of $50,000 in under 5 minutes; it’s currently hovering around $450,000 with 30 days to go.
There are cheaper kits available for those that want only specific modules, such as the $299 version that comes with just the pen holding module. But there are also a couple of upgrades available that truly unlock the potential of Hexbot: a sliding rail and a conveyor belt. Both provide another dimension of motion that the imagination can run wild with trying to come up with all the different configurations that become possible. The team demonstrates the Hexbot working with the OpenMV computer vision system, so one arm could be positioned at the end of multiple different conveyor belts, sliding back and forth on its rail to sort their various advancing objects.
And that’s just with the pick and place module. With the pen module, that same setup could create stacks of beautifully written letters and perfectly-drawn portraits. The laser module could engrave personalized phone cases one after another. The 3D printing module could 3D print onto beds placed on the conveyor belt (by another Hexbot of course), fabricating part after part without any human intervention; the same Hexbot that places build plates onto the conveyor belt could slide to the end and move the printed object off of the conveyor. The possibilities are literally limitless.
It’s not just the modules that make this robotic arm so appealing. It can lift half a kilogram up to 380mm away and its patented decelerator design reduces the gap between gears, enabling repeatable precision of 0.05mm. The motion is also incredibly smooth and quiet, even when traveling at a blazing 500mm/s. The creators claim the Hexbot is quiet enough that someone could sleep beside it while it worked, and after listening to it in the videos, that seems entirely possible.
Controlling and programming Hexbot is also as easy as touching the 3.5-inch screen and moving the robotic arm by hand; it remembers the path and even smooths the motion. An API is provided for experienced developers to create custom commands in Processing, Python, and G-code. Additionally, the programming interface Blockly is integrated into the software, making it accessible to kids and beginners to programming.
Though it’s not addressed in the campaign, the motion of the Hexbot should enable it to 3D print on angled surfaces, allowing it to make stronger parts by 3D printing the layers perpendicular to the direction of stress undergone by the 3D printed object. Maybe the creators will release a demonstration of such a feature. Hexbot is the only (affordable) robotic arm that can 3D print custom chess pieces, laser engrave a chess board, and then play a game of chess.