Robotic Wood Shop Has Ambitions To Challenge IKEA

Many people got their start with 3D printing by downloading designs from Thingiverse, and some of these designs could be modified in the browser using the Thingiverse Customizer. The mechanism behind this powerful feature is OpenSCAD’s parametric design capability, which offers great flexibility but is still limited by 3D printer size. In the interest of going bigger, a team at MIT built a system to adopt parametric design idea to woodworking.

The “AutoSaw” has software and hardware components. The software side is built on web-based CAD software Onshape. First the expert user builds a flexible design with parameters that could be customized, followed by one or more end users who specify their own custom configuration.

Once the configuration is approved, the robots go to work. AutoSaw has two robotic woodworking systems: The simpler one is a Roomba mounted jigsaw to cut patterns out of flat sheets. The more complex system involves two robot arms on wheels (Kuka youBot) working with a chop saw to cut wood beams to length. These wood pieces are then assembled by the end-user using dowel pegs.

AutoSaw is a fun proof of concept and a glimpse at a potential future: One where a robotic wood shop is part of your local home improvement store’s lumber department. Ready to cut/drill/route pieces for you to take home and assemble.

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Mechanical Wooden Turing Machine

Alan Turing theorized a machine that could do infinite calculations from an infinite amount of data that computes based on a set of rules. It starts with an input, transforms the data and outputs an answer. Computation at its simplest. The Turing machine is considered a blueprint for modern computers and has also become a blueprint for builders to challenge themselves for decades.

Inspired by watching The Imitation Game, a historical drama loosely based on Alan Turing, [Richard J. Ridel] researched Alan Turing and decided to build a Turing machine of his own. During his research, he found most machines were created using electrical parts so he decided to challenge himself by building a purely mechanical Turing machine.

Unlike the machine Alan Turing hypothesized, [Richard J. Ridel] decided on building a machine that accommodated three data elements (0, 1, and “b” for blank) and three states. This was informed by research he did on the minimum amount of data elements and states a machine could have in order to perform any calculation along with his own experimentation and material constraints.

Read more about Richard’s trial and error build development, how his machine works, and possible improvements in the document he wrote linked to above. It’s a great document of process and begs you to learn from it and take on your own challenge of building a Turing machine.

For more inspiration on how to build a Turing machine check out how to build one using readily available electronic components.

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Making the Best Plywood for Laser Cut Puzzles

Plywood laser-cuts fairly well but has drawbacks when used in serious production runs, as [Marie] explains in a blog post about a quest for the ultimate laser-cutting plywood. One of the things [Nervous System] makes and sells is generative jigsaw puzzles, and they shared their experience with the challenges in producing them. The biggest issue was the wood itself. They ended up getting a custom plywood made to fit their exact needs, a process that turned out neither as complex nor as unusual as it may sound.

An example of how a dense knot hidden in one of the plywood layers caused the laser to not cut all the way through.

Plywood is great because it’s readily available, but there are some drawbacks that cause problems when trying to do serious production of laser-cut plywood pieces. Laser cutting works best when the material being cut is consistent, but there can be areas of inconsistent density in plywood. If the laser encounters an unexpected knot somewhere in the wood, there is no way to slow down or to increase power to compensate. The result is a small area where the laser perhaps doesn’t quite make it through. A picture of an example from my workshop shows what this looks like.

When doing basic project work or prototyping, this kind of issue is inconvenient but usually some trimming and sanding will sort things out. When doing a production run for puzzles like [Nervous System] was doing, the issue is more serious:

  1. A jigsaw puzzle with a large number of cuts in a relatively small area has a higher chance of running into any problem spots in the material. If they exist, the laser will probably encounter them.
  2. Trouble spots in plywood can be on the inside layers, meaning they can’t be detected visually and are only discovered after they cause an incomplete cut.
  3. Increasing laser power for the whole job is an incomplete solution, as excessive laser power tends to make the cuts uglier due to increased scorching and charring.
  4. An inspection process becomes needed to check each puzzle piece for problems, which adds time and effort.
  5. A puzzle that had even one piece that did not cut properly will probably be scrapped because rework is not practical. That material (and any time and money that went into getting the nice artwork onto it) becomes waste.

Plywood is great stuff and can look gorgeous, but [Marie] says they struggled with its issues for a long time and eventually realized they had gone as far as they could with off-the-shelf plywoods, even specialty ones. They knew exactly what they needed, and it was time for something custom-made to serve those specific needs.

Having your own plywood custom-made may sound a little extreme, but [Marie] assures us it’s not particularly difficult or unreasonable. They contacted a small manufacturer who specialized in custom aircraft plywoods and was able to provide their laser-cut plywood holy grail: a 3-ply sheet, with high quality basswood core with birch veneers, and a melamine-based glue. It cuts better than anything else they have used, and [Marie] says that after four years they had certainly tried just about everything.