Industry, Innovation

Robotic Blacksmithing – New Manufacturing Process

In the extremely competitive market of manufacturing technology, innovation is an import asset. Elon Musk once said that the real promoters of success for his automotive and space businesses were the “machines that build the machines”.  SpaceX is able to launch less expensive mission with incredible speed by using scalable processes, as opposed to NASA’s old manufacturing procedures. Even Tesla’s new abnormal Cybertruck design replaces die stamping metal with a more simplified manufacturing method of bending metal sheets. A new manufacturing process that has transformed the approach of making structural parts, called robotic blacksmithing, has created a new division of personalized products

Construction, transportation, mining and power-generation all use metal parts for safety crucial functions.  Most of these parts are produced using methods that haven’t been updated for years. Two of these methods, casting and forging(also known as forming)  require custom molds and dies that can be both expensive in time and money to design and develop. However once these mold are up and running, they can be very effective for reproducing high quality parts, making common parts like nuts and bolts remarkably cheap. After World War II, the rise of digital manufacturing lead to a more agile production cycle. Computer Numeric Controller Machining could cut multiple different parts by booting different programs to the computer. One drawback of this, is it’s relatively low “fly-to-buy” ratio. In order to create a 100-pound component, you might a 1,0000 pound titanium block to carve from. So while computer numeric control machining may lower the time to create parts drastically, it is rather expensive and wasteful. The latest craze in manufacturing is additive manufacturing, or 3D printing. Through this process, shapes that were previously impossible to create using machining, like internal passages can be printed one layer at a time.  While this does give manufacturing more flexibility in the parts it can produce, the parts created through this process often falter in strength compared to other methods.

Just like the kneading of dough into a more structured and homogenous object, the constant working of metal by blacksmiths give it unfathomable strength and much like how wood is stronger in the direction of it’s grains, as the metal takes shape, it cultivates directional strength. For swords and other small pieces of metal, this process work amazingly well, but no human blacksmith has the stamina or reproducibility to create parts for aircraft landing gears.  This is where the idea of robotic blacksmithing comes in. Powered presses with interchangeable tools would be able to shape parts by repeatedly and precisely forming a piece of metal. This new approach towards forming could be extremely useful for consistently and efficiently making structural supports for submarines, locomotives, ship and aircrafts.

The original concept of robotic blacksmith, also known as metamorphic manufacturing, was tested by a team of undergraduates at Ohio State University back in 2017. The took traditional computer numeric control milling machine and adapted its software and hardware to handle controlled deformation. There still remains a lot of research to be done before safety-critical parts can be produced using autonomous machine shaping. In order to perfect metamorphic manufacturing, the system must be able to maintain the temperature, condition and shape at each location of the part and decide where to the press the part next to produce the right shape and optimize strength.


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