Have you ever wanted to design an advanced, sturdy or fancy looking robot? Computer-aided design (CAD) and 3D printing might be for you; both are simpler than you think!
Figure 1 shows an arts-and-crafts version of an Art Bot next to a version designed for 3D printing in a CAD program.
Figure 1. (Left) An arts-and-crafts version of the “Art Bot” robot with a plastic cup for a body. (Right) An Art Bot with an insect-shaped body designed in a CAD program (image credit Autodesk Inc., 2014).
We will give you a brief introduction to CAD and 3D printing, then tell you how to get started designing your own printable robot body.
Computer-Aided Design (CAD)
Engineers and designers use CAD to make computer drawings and models of mechanical things like robots, cars, and airplanes, as well as things you see around you every day like jewelry, toys, and cell phones. This process used to be done by hand, but the invention of computers allowed engineers to edit and update their designs much more quickly; it is much easier to delete a line on a computer than to erase a line on a piece of paper! Today, there are many different types of CAD programs, ranging from simple programs used by young students and hobbyists, to advanced programs used by professional designers and engineers. Figure 2 shows a screenshot of professional CAD software called Inventor.
Figure 2. Autodesk Inventor is a professional-grade CAD program used by engineers to design things like cars, computers, and jewelry. This screenshot shows an engine (image credit Autodesk Inc., 2014)
Big, expensive 3D printers have been available to large corporations for decades, but smaller, cheaper ones have only recently become available to consumers. 3D printers are machines that can rapidly “print” a three-dimensional object using a design file from a CAD program. There are many different types of 3D printers. Some 3D printers extrude melted plastic through a nozzle (much like a soft-serve ice cream machine dispenses ice cream). The plastic quickly solidifies when it comes in contact with the cool air, gradually building up a solid object, one layer at a time. Other 3D printers use lasers to fuse together bits of a plastic or metal powder, and other types use ultraviolet light to solidify a liquid called a photopolymer. 3D printers come in all shapes and sizes, from hobbyist machines the size of a microwave to big industrial machines the size of a refrigerator. Figure 3 shows a large industrial printer and a small desktop printer. The video below them shows a time-lapse of 3D printing from the Science Buddies project Squishy Robots: Build an Air-Powered Soft Robotic Gripper.
Figure 3. (Left) A large industrial 3D printer. Note the computers on the floor next to it and the office chair in the background for scale (image credit Wikimedia Commons user Zorro2212, 2013). (Right) A small tabletop 3D printer (image credit Wikimedia Commons user Semenko, 2013).
Designing and 3D-printing Your Own Robot
So, after reading about CAD and 3D printing, do you think you are ready to try designing and printing your own robot? If so, the first step is to decide what type of robot you are going to build.
- If this is your first time using CAD or 3D printing, we suggest starting with the Art Bot: Build a Wobbly Robot That Creates Art project. This is a simple type of “vibrobot” that uses a battery to power a vibrating motor that makes the robot wobble along, but without any real steering or “intelligence.” A Bristlebot Robotics Kit with the electronic parts for this project is available from our partner Home Science Tools.
- If you are ready for a more-advanced robotics project, check out BlueBot: 4-in-1 Robotics Kit. Several of the projects involve using craft materials like popsicle sticks or cardboard tubes to attach sensors to the robot’s body. Can you design 3D-printed attachments instead?
Once you have chosen the type of robot you will build (see the links above for the circuit parts you will need), you need to find a CAD program to use. Which program you use will depend on your level of experience and budget, but here are some suggestions to get you started:
- Free programs like TinkerCAD and SketchUp are generally aimed at beginners. They will run in a web browser on most computers and include helpful tutorials to get you started.
- Some professional CAD programs, like Inventor or Solidworks, offer free or heavily discounted student versions (professional versions can cost thousands of dollars). While these programs are more powerful than free programs like TinkerCAD and SketchUp, they are also more difficult to learn, and require more powerful computers to run. These programs are only recommended if you have previous experience with CAD software, or a lot of time to go through tutorials and learn how to use them.
Finally, you can make or order a 3D-printed version of your design. If you do not have access to a 3D printer, there are several online vendors that will print out your design and mail it to you (for example, in Tinkercad, select the “Design” menu, then “Order a 3D print”). However, even if you do not have a 3D printer at home, you may be able to find access to one in your area. Many schools and public libraries now have 3D printers, and a makerspace may let you use their printer for a fee, or for free if you are a member. Ask an adult to help you look around to find a 3D printer that you can use in your area.