Robotic arms have been around for years, 3D printers have been around for decades, and we've even seen 3D printers attached to robotic arms before. But this... is different.
In Shanghai, a group of designers participating in a "digital future workshop" developed a 3D printer unlike anything I've ever seen. The basic premise of the design is this: 3D printing will never be as good as it claims because it relies on gravity — it can't print "structure" aside from the primitive layer-upon-layer-upon-layer system.
The group wanted to solve this by building a printer that could truly print structures in 3D space without them toppling over.
And to do it, they looked at the microscopic structure inside a spider's thread, uses ribboning threads to create "knots" that stabilise a straight thread at the centre (you can see a cool electron microscope image of it here).
Obviously, there are few 3D printers on Earth that can print microscopic strands. So, using conventional printheads, the team recreated the spider thread at a visible scale. The robotic arm was outfitted with one stable printhead at its center, then surrounded with three moving printheads.
When it prints, these three heads create a ribbon-like structure around the single central strand — which makes it possible to print in mid-air without the whole thing sagging under its own weight.
In motion, it looks as though the arm is weaving in midair. It's totally hypnotic and fascinating to know that it's roughly copying the same process that occurs naturally inside a spider's body.