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Robotic arm. Image Credit: Shutterstock.com/asharkyu

3D Printer Robotic Arm: Manufacturers, Advantages, and Disadvantages

Xomety X
By Team Xometry
May 18, 2023
 11 min read
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A 3D printer robotic arm is an industrial, articulated mechanical arm with a 3D printing head attached. This provides scale and versatility to allow 3D printing at an industrial scale. It can be applied to different 3D printing technologies such as wire arc additive manufacturing for printing with metal, or pellet extrusion for printing with pellets. 3D printing robots are being developed at a fast pace, with many potential applications in the construction industry due to their scale. There are numerous collaborations ongoing with robotic arm suppliers together with third-party 3D printing specialists, to develop and commercialize different approaches to additive manufacturing at scale. This article will discuss the 3D printer robotic arm, its manufacturers, advantages, and disadvantages. 

What Is a Robotic Arm for 3D Printing?

A robotic arm for 3D printing is a form of robotic arm manufacturing. An industrial, articulated robotic arm is used to move a printhead around to additively manufacture a component. It can also be called robot additive manufacturing (RAM). It can utilize established methods of 3D printing, such as fused deposition modeling (FDM) or directed energy deposition (DED), but the feed material is moved around and positioned by a robotic arm rather than by a gantry. Figure 1 below shows a standard articulated robotic arm used in industrial applications:

For more information, see our guide on Everything About 3D Printing.

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3d robotic arm
3d robotic arm
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Standard robotic arm.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com/asharkyu

What Are the Advantages of Robotic Arm for 3D Printing Projects?

Robotic arm 3D printing has a number of valuable advantages, including:

  1. Using a robotic arm for 3D printing immediately allows larger-scale models (>1 m in any dimension) to be printed compared to typical self-contained 3D printers. If the robot is able to move, models as large as 30 m in one dimension can be printed.
  2. The five- or six-axis movement provides freedom of movement for the 3D printing head. It gives the ability to trace complex paths in order to build components.
  3. Robotic arms allow most models to be built without supports, due to the freedom of movement of the print head. However, to completely avoid support on some models, the build platform may need to move as well, to allow the model to be reoriented.
  4. A robotic arm can be fitted with a variety of 3D printing fixtures, including those that allow multiple feed materials to be used, such as WAAM or CBAM.

What Are the Disadvantages of Robotic Arms for 3D Printing Projects?

Robotic arm 3D printing has a number of complications and limitations, including:

  1. Using a robotic arm adds meaningful cost, on top of an additive manufacturing system which is already expensive. The combined setup can be expected to cost in excess of $100,000.
  2. Complexity.
  3. Most 3D printing setups with a robotic arm are put together with the arm from one specialist supplier, the printhead from another supplier, and potentially software from a third. It is not common or easy to purchase an all-in-one solution from a single provider. This does introduce some difficulty with the integration of the different platforms.

What Are the Different Robotic Arm 3D Printing Manufacturer Solutions?

Generally, there are robotic arm manufacturers who supply the robots and collaborate with 3D printing organizations. Then there are the 3D printing technology partners, who develop their specific approach to additive manufacturing, with the help of the robotic arm suppliers. Listed below are some of the different robotic arm 3D printing manufacturers:

1. ABB

ABB is a large, multinational corporation. The entity concerned with designing and supplying robotic arms is ABB Robotics. ABB not only supplies robots but also the popular RobotStudio® software, and collaborates with specialist organizations such as Massive Dimension to further 3D printing technology.

2. KUKA

KUKA is a German automation and robotics company that is widely used for robotic arm 3D printers. It also specializes in collaborative robots to work alongside humans. KUKA has partnered with other 3D printing teams such as Orbital Composites, and their robots are used for multiple different 3D printing applications.

3. Comau

Comau is an Italian automation and robotics supplier. It is especially focused on integrating IoT and AI into the operation of its robotic arms. Third-party 3D printing companies such as CEAD and Continuous Composites use Comau robotic arms for manufacturing.

4. The Robotic Arm from Hyperion Robotics

Hyperion originated in Helsinki, Finland, and is focused on the construction industry. The company has developed its own construction mixture for extrusion into 3D printed structures, which limits cement content and maximizes recycled waste material.

5. CEAD

CEAD is based in Delft, Netherlands. It is unique in that it focuses on combining 3D printing and CNC milling capabilities into a single unit. CEAD’s AM Flexbot in particular is finding many applications as a single manufacturing station.

6. DXR Series from Weber Additive

Germany’s Weber Additive is known for its DXR Series of robotic arm 3D printers. They use an extruder for additive manufacturing with polymers.

7. Orbital Composites

Orbital Composites has been a pioneer in the robotic arm 3D printing industry. Its Orbital S was the first industrial-scale robot 3D printer and has an impressive speed of 2 m/s.

8. Massive Dimension

Massive Dimension focuses on large-scale 3D printing and it provides turnkey robotic printing cells. Its technology focuses on polymer pellet extrusion.

9. Dyze Design Pulsar

The Pulsar™ by Dyze Design is a large-scale pellet extrusion additive manufacturing system with the intent of managing a range of operating conditions. With a heat shield, water cooling circuit, and multiple nozzle sizes, the Pulsar is capable of printing with a range of different polymers.

10. MX3D

MX3D from the Netherlands is widely known for 3D printing a steel pedestrian bridge, currently installed in Amsterdam. MX3D focuses on printing with metals using the WAAM technology, and it has gone so far as to develop its own dedicated software for this purpose.

11. Continuous Composites

Continuous Composites has shown success with its patented carbon fiber printing technology CF3D. The company has been contracted by NASA to produce components for use in space.

12. Branch Technology

Branch Technology focuses on 3D printing structures, such as a fully 3D-printed pavilion in Nashville. The company works together with architects and designers to push the application of 3D printing for buildings.

Branch Technology focuses on 3D printing structures, such as a fully 3D-printed pavilion in Nashville. The company works together with architects and designers to push the application of 3D printing for buildings.

How Does a Robot Arm Work for 3D Printing?

A robot arm for 3D printing works in a very similar way to a typical industrial robot arm, except that a printhead is fitted to the end of the arm. The robot arm has multiple joints, each one providing some freedom of movement, in total providing five- or six-axis control. The robot is then able to move, tilt, and position the printhead throughout a range of potential positions. In this way, the robot arm moves the printhead over a component in order to print multiple layers and contours.

What Are the Software Options for Robot Arm 3D Printing?

Software for robot arm printing focuses on calculating the optimum path for the robot head to traverse in order to accurately print the model. Below are three popular options for software:

  1. RobotStudio® 3D Printing PowerPac from ABB: The software is capable of managing different additive manufacturing processes, such as welding or printing with granules. The entire print can be simulated and visualized in RobotStudio®, before sending it to the actual robot to build.
  2. AdaOne from ADAXIS: The path planning software is able to work with a number of different robot brands and their internal programming language. It can work with multiple printing materials.
  3. MetalXL from MX3D: This software is specific to WAAM (Wire Arc Additive Manufacturing), which is MX3D’s focus. It includes modules for print feasibility and path planning, simulation and control of the print, and post-print analytics.

For more information, see our guide on Best 3D Printing Software.

How Long Could A 3D Printing Robotic Arm Last?

3D printing robotic arms are expected to have a life span in the region of eight years. This is based on the current lifespan of industrial articulated robotic arms used across multiple industries. These robots can be in useful operation for as long as 20 years. However, their application in 3D printing is still fairly recent and under intense development, so these longer life spans are less likely. Also, although the robot may still be operating well after eight years, the 3D printing machinery mounted to the end of the robotic arm will likely not have such longevity. This is both due to their recent development and also because they may become irrelevant due to the fast pace of technological evolution.

Is a Robotic Arm Able To Print Houses?

No, typical articulated robotic arms are not able to print houses. Robotic arm 3D printers have limited print volume, set by the dimensions of the arm and the distance from the fixed base. Therefore robotic arm 3D printers are generally only capable of printing components, which can then be assembled into larger objects such as buildings. Large-scale 3D printers that are able to print houses are specialized versions of a gantry-style 3D printer, where a larger structure is erected to be able to cover a large enough print volume for a house. For more information, see our guide on 3D Printing in Construction.

Does a Robotic Arm a Have Limited Printable Area?

Yes, a robotic arm does have a limited printable area. Most robotic arms have a stationary base and therefore have a reach around that base that is limited by the length of the arm. In 3D printing, that reach is in the region of 1.5 m. Some robotic arms have been mounted on rails—this adds an additional printable area in that direction. However, by nature, the printable area is still limited by the practical reach of the robotic arm.

Do Robotic Arms Depend on 3D Software for Quality?

Yes, robotic arms do depend on the 3D software for the quality of the final printed part. 3D printing at a large scale is incredibly complex, and the movement of the robotic arm must be carefully governed by the software. Depending on the material that is being printed with, and its characteristics of shrinkage with temperature and moisture, the software that governs the printing will need to be able to model that shrinkage. In addition, the software needs to accurately model the developing part as it is built, to ensure that the robotic arm does not collide with the build as it grows. Software that cannot accurately model the characteristics of the feed material as it solidifies will not provide a good final quality—regardless of the precision of movement that the robotic arm is capable of.

What Is the Difference Between a Robotic Arm and a Gantry System for 3D Printing?

There are a number of differences between a robotic arm and a gantry system for 3D printing. The first difference is that a robotic arm is able to move in six axes, whereas a gantry system is only capable of three axes of movement. This also means that robotic arms are better suited to printing curved and spherical items, whereas gantry systems are better suited to cubic prints. However, gantry systems are able to print larger units than robotic arms. The general accuracy of gantry systems also tends to be better than that of robotic arms. Robotic arms have very good point accuracy (at a specific endpoint), but their accuracy along a path of travel is still being improved. For more information, see our guide on Robotic Arm vs Gantry System for 3D Printing.

Summary

This article presented the 3D printer robotic arm, explained what it is, and discussed its various applications. To learn more about 3D printer robotic arms, contact a Xometry representative.

Xometry provides a wide range of manufacturing capabilities, including 3D printing and other value-added services for all of your prototyping and production needs. Visit our website to learn more or to request a free, no-obligation quote.

  1. RobotStudio® is a registered trademark of ABB AB, Västeras, Sweden
  2. Pulsar™ is a trademark of Dyze Design Inc., LeMoyne, Quebec

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Xomety X
Team Xometry
This article was written by various Xometry contributors. Xometry is a leading resource on manufacturing with CNC machining, sheet metal fabrication, 3D printing, injection molding, urethane casting, and more.