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March 16, 2017

3D printers and robot arms: This is what small-scale automated manufacturing looks like

by John_A

Why it matters to you

By taking over menial tasks, these machines may facilitate more fulfilling roles for humans.

Brooklyn-based 3D printing factory Voodoo Manufacturing has a new employee that never sleeps and won’t take lunch breaks. Dubbed Project Skywalker, the system demonstrates what the company calls the first fully functional robot-operated 3D printer cluster.

“One of our near-term goals at Voodoo is to lower our costs by 90 percent over the next three to five years in order to compete for higher-volume part runs,” Jonathan Schwartz, co-founder and Chief Product Officer, told Digital Trends. “Ultimately, however, we intend to build a fully-digital factory, in which digital files are provided as input, and physical parts are produced as output.”

In the meantime, Voodoo will use Skywalker, which consists of a robotic arm and nine 3D printers mounted on server racks. As the printers churn out objects, the arm collects and moves them to a conveyer belt where they can be picked up by employees. Voodoo calls the robot a harvester and insists it will save employees time from menial tasks but won’t take their jobs.

“Skywalker will not be replacing any of our employees,” said Max Friefeld, co-founder and CEO. “It will enable them to focus on higher-value tasks compared to what we’ll be using robots to automate.”

More: The startup behind the world’s fastest 3D printer is back with version 2.0

Friefeld projects that over time this increased efficiency will enable the company to hire more human employees in more fulfilling roles. “We don’t think of automation as a zero-sum game, where a robot gaining tasks means that a person must lose tasks or their job,” he said. “This is true because manufacturing demand and output in the United States, the world, and at Voodoo is growing rather than staying constant or shrinking. This is a trend we expect will continue, mostly thanks to the efficiencies gained by automation.”

Schwartz says the Skywalker system will help produce products from prosthetics to keychains, and even custom parts for hardware. However, this is Voodoo’s own special project and the group has no plans to make it commercially available at this point.

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