MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) wants to convert laser cutters into something more. By attaching a head to a commercial laser cutter and adding software, they combine the functions of a cutter, a conductive printer, and a pick and place system. The idea is to enable construction of entire devices such as robots and drones.
The concept, called LaserFactory, sounds like a Star Trek-style replicator, but it doesn’t create things like circuit elements and motors. It simply picks them up, places them, and connects them using silver conductive ink. You can get a good idea of how it works by watching the video below.
While it is true that all of this technology exists today, there’s some synergy in having them all together. For example, the video shows etching grooves into acrylic with the laser, filling the grooves with silver ink, and then using the laser to set the silver forming a sort of printed circuit board. Then the pick and place can put components down which the machine can laser solder into place.
Of course, it remains to be seen how durable this construction is. Also, it is obvious that you are going to have a limited palette of options depending on what components are available. That is, you can’t build a tank with quadcopter parts.
We’ve seen laser soldering rigs before. Homebrew pick and place machines are around, too. It doesn’t seem too far a stretch that you could fabricate your own version of this with a laser module, a paste extruder, and a few other odds and ends.