Dual-Wielding Robot Carves 3D Shapes From Foam With Warped Wire

“Every block of expanded polystyrene foam has a statue inside it and it is the task of the dual-arm hot wire-wielding robot to discover it.” — [Michelangelo], probably.

Be prepared to have your mind blown by this dual-wielding hot-wire 3D foam cutter (PDF). We’ve all seen simple hot-wire cutters before, whether they be manual-feed cutters or CNC-controlled like a 3D-printer. The idea is to pass current through a wire to heat it up just enough to melt a path as it’s guided through a block of polystyrene foam. Compared to cutting with a knife or a saw, hot-wire cuts are smooth as silk and produces mercifully little of that styrofoam detritus that gets all over your workspace.

But hot-wire cutters can’t do much other than to make straight cuts, since the wire must be kept taut. “RoboCut”, though, as [Simon Duenser] and his colleagues at ETH Zurich call their creation, suffers from no such limitations. Using an ABB YuMi, a dual-arm collaborative robot, they devised a method of making controlled curved cuts through foam by using a 1-mm thick deformable rod rather than a limp and floppy wire for the cutting tool. The robot has seven degrees of freedom on each arm, and there’s only so much the rod can deform before being permanently damaged, so the kinematics involved are far from trivial. Each pass through the foam is calculated to remove as much material as possible, and multiple passes are needed to creep up on the final design.

The video below shows the mesmerizing sweeps needed to release the Stanford bunny trapped within the foam, as well as other common 3D test models. We’re not sure it’s something easily recreated by the home-gamer, but it sure is fun to watch.

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Build A Tiny Hot Wire Foam Cutter

Let’s face it: cutting foam with a knife, even a serrated plastic knife meant for the job, is a messy pain in the ass.  This is as true for insulation board as it is for the ubiquitous expanded polystyrene kind of foam used for everything from coffee cups to packaging material.

Those stick-type hot wire cutters from the craft store that plug into the wall aren’t much better than a knife. The actual cleaving of foam is easier, but dragging a long, hot flexible wand through rigid foam just right, without making burn marks, is pretty frustrating. It’s not like you can hold the other end to keep it steady. A foam cutter built like a coping saw but held parallel to the wire would offer much better control.

[Techgenie]’s handheld hot wire foam cutter is a simple build based on a single 18650 and a piece of nichrome wire. While this is probably not the most Earth-shattering hack you’ll see today, it’s a useful tool that can be made in minutes with items on hand. Laptop chargers are full of 18650s, and nichrome wire can be sourced from old toasters, hair dryers, or space heaters.

You shouldn’t use just any old wire for this, though, or the battery will get hot and potentially explode. Nichrome wire has a high resistance, and that’s exactly what you want in a tool that essentially shorts a battery to make heat. [Techgenie] used a momentary button instead of a switch, which is a good way to stay safe while using it. It wouldn’t hurt to add some protection circuitry and take the battery out when you’re done. Burn past the break to watch him build it and cut a few tight turns with ease.

If you have bigger, more complicated foam-cutting jobs in mind, why not build a CNC version out of e-waste?

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