The production of high-quality structural elements can undergo a revolution thanks to “robotic blacksmithing“. Metamorphic production combines the precision and control of machines and robotic systems with the gradual deformation of a blacksmith.
A group of undergraduate students at Ohio State University demonstrated the fundamental idea of robotic blacksmithing, formally known as metamorphic manufacturing, in 2017 by modifying a standard computer numerical control milling machine with hardware and software to enable controlled deformation.
Metal parts are used in all kinds of high-performance, safety-critical applications in transportation, mining, construction and power generation equipment. Most are manufactured using one of the few classic manufacturing processes that have not changed much in decades. Casting and forging to shape them often requires custom moulds or dies that can be time-consuming and expensive to design and manufacture, but once in operation they are highly productive.
Computer numerical control machining, which shapes components from blocks of metal, is the first step in digital manufacturing. It is enough to launch a new computer program to produce a different component.
The manufacture of these parts using the additive manufacturing method, known as 3D printing, is currently receiving well-deserved enthusiasm. This method also creates parts from computer files at the customer’s request, layering each portion individually. Printing shapes that cannot be created by machining allows new shapes with specific characteristics to be created.
Combination with robotic toolmaking
Metal tools made by blacksmiths often have legendary strength because when the metal is manipulated, as if kneading dough, it is refined and its structure is uniformly consistent. The material gains directional strength as it is shaped, just as wood gains strength along the grain. However, no human blacksmith has the repeatability and strength to work with or to produce the components essential to our economy. Such as the production of large components.
Robotic blacksmithing is a concept that adds new digital capabilities to the blacksmithing trade. A piece of metal precisely placed in a press and repeatedly and incrementally formed into shapes. Depending on the required shape, this press or motorised hammer system will change its tools.
A machine can handle larger parts and be more efficient and reproducible than human labour, automating the process of shaping a part but following the fundamental principles of a blacksmith.
Blacksmith robots could be a useful and practical manufacturing technology, as a roadmap study has shown. A synthesis of technologies is required for the full development of the blacksmith robot. The system must be able to know the shape, temperature and state of the material at each location of the part being formed.
Wherever there is a high demand for skills to staff and upgrade existing factories, the next concentration of innovation is likely to follow. The key to maintaining this positive cycle in any area is to develop the factories, or the tools that build more tools. Robotic blacksmithing offers the possibility to compete in the global marketplace.