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Laser cutter add-on enables electronic devices to be 'printed'

MIT researchers have created an add-on for laser cutting systems that enables them to 'print' functional, custom-made devices and robots, without human intervention.

According to the scientists from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the technology could be beneficial for product developers, makers, researchers, and educators looking to rapidly prototype devices such as wearables, robots, or printed electronics.

The new solution, dubbed ‘LaserFactory’, comprises two elements: a software toolkit that allows users to design custom devices, and the add-on hardware that assembles them, which attaches to the head of a commercial laser cutter.

The LaserFactory automatically cuts the device geometries, dispenses silver for circuit traces, picks and places electronic components, and finally cures the silver to make the traces conductive, securing the components in place to complete fabrication.

‘Making fabrication inexpensive, fast, and accessible to a layman remains a challenge,’ said PhD student Martin Nisser, lead author on the paper reporting LaserFactory. ‘By leveraging widely available manufacturing platforms like 3D printers and laser cutters, LaserFactory is the first system that integrates these capabilities and automates the full pipeline for making functional devices in one system.’

The researchers demonstrated the system by fabricating a drone. 

Using the LaserFactory software, they first designed the device by placing components (including propellers and batteries) onto a canvas from a parts library, and then drew on circuit traces – the metal lines on a printed circuit board that connect electronic components. The drone’s geometry was then finalised in the 2D editor by drawing a perimeter to define the quadcopter’s shape. The software then translated the custom blueprint into machine instructions, which were embedded into a single fabrication file that enabled LaserFactory to make the device in one go, aided by the standard laser cutter software. 

The device was fully functional and could immediately take off.

As a future avenue, the researchers hope to increase the quality and resolution of the circuit traces, which would allow for denser and more complex electronics. They also seek to build on this technology by exploring how to create a fuller range of 3D geometries, potentially through integrating traditional 3D printing into the process. 

'Beyond engineering, we’re also thinking about how this kind of one-stop shop for fabrication devices could be optimally integrated into today’s existing supply chains for manufacturing, and what challenges we may need to solve to allow for that to happen,' said Nisser. 'In the future, people shouldn’t be expected to have an engineering degree to build robots, any more than they should have a computer science degree to install software.' 

The research is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation, and is supported by a Microsoft Research Faculty Fellowship and The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

The research paper reporting LaserFactory will be presented at the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in May.

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