from the assembly-line dept
3D printers are wonderful tools for modern makers and tinkerers, but all by themselves they can make little more than plastic trinkets and pieces of larger projects. Today, we're looking at one of the most interesting evolutions in the world of 3D printing: the Makerarm, a veritable factory-in-a-box that boasts 3D printing as just one of its many capabilities.
The range of the Makerarm's capabilities is almost unbelievable, and calling it a "3D printer" simply doesn't do it justice. Yes, it can 3D print — with both the filament and resin methods — but swap out the tool head attached to its programmable arm and it becomes a light-duty miller and carver, or a laser-engraver. Swap it out again and it can print custom circuit boards. Once more, and it can assemble the components on those boards. Use the variety of suction cups, grippers and magnets and it can assemble whole projects, then throw on the screwdriver head and it can fasten them all together. Pair it with another Makerarm, and they can work in concert to do all those things but bigger.
Yup, the Makerarm does just about everything, to the point that you can build an entire custom laptop computer without needing any other tools — and it does all that for only $2200 (the price with a complete set of tool heads). As if that weren't enough, the arm itself is maker-friendly, and includes a hardware development kit for building custom tool heads. It's not a 3D printer but a general-purpose robotic arm, and the savings in both money and space for an avid hobbyist is staggering. Someone with a limited budget and a small workshop no longer has to make that tough choice between 3D printing, milling, laser engraving and PCB printing — all of which are available as reasonably affordable desktop devices, but no more than two of which have been combined before. The ability to actually assemble projects piece by piece is just icing on the metaphorical cake — and the ability to swap in a food-friendly head and print with confections is icing on the literal cake.
The Makerarm is only in the working prototype phase, and that means there's still the question of just how well it really does all these things. That's something serious makers will have to determine after they get their hands on the device, so not everyone is going to want to jump on the Kickstarter right away. It's probably fair to guess that it won't match the quality of standalone devices for every function, but it appears poised to exceed at least some of them, and as long as it's capable the price tag will make it an appealing alternative to an array of individual tools.
In the past I've bemoaned other tools that can only be controlled by proprietary software and, worse still, only on iOS or Android — a limitation that I think puts such devices somewhere on the border between "hobby" and "toy" in the minds of serious makers. The Makerarm's approach is different and much better all-around, though not without drawbacks: its custom control software is web based, which means it's completely platform-agnostic (good) but also tied to the cloud and the Makerarm website (less good). However, it's also mercifully not reliant on its own software, and works with other CAD/CAM/CAE tools — it even comes with a one year subscription to AutoDesk Fusion 360. Given this, and the fact that the arm itself is trainable and scriptable, and the fact that people can build new tool heads for it, I think the Makerarm's already-impressive list of functions is in fact just the beginning.