We just noticed an unusual patent application from 3D print service Materialise: a three-fingered “gripper”. What does this mean?
First, let’s look at the patent application itself, which, if you want to look it up, is US 2015/0360372 from December 17th.
As you can see in the image above, it’s for a three-fingered gripping device. The “fingers” actually are designed to contract inwards to effect capture of a target object.
There are several different methods of activating the gripper, one of which is shown here. You can visualize how the wiggly part might compress to effect the contraction, for example.
The patent describes the manufacture of such grippers using various additive manufacturing techniques, such as FDM, SLS and others, as well as describing the methods of controlling the gripper. They go to great lengths to describe the 3D printing method of manufacturing such grippers.
One wonders why Materialise, a well-known 3D print service that provides parts and prints for business and consumers with a wide variety of 3D printing technologies, would be interested in obtaining a patent on a specific item like this.
We have no confirmation of their intentions, but we can speculate a bit here. It’s possible they’ve been making a gripper like this already for some internal purpose. Why not, as they have all the equipment and expertise to make things like this?
They could have discovered some great utility with this particular design and sought a patent for it. But what could they be using this gripper for?
We speculate that it might be for use in some type of automation system for 3D print services. As you know, 3D print services offer printing, which requires printers, but a large part of the cost of their operations will be labor required to unload and process prints after printing.
Perhaps this gripper is part of a post-print automation system? Maybe it is used to remove completed prints, sort them, move them to post-processing equipment or perhaps pack completed items for shipment.
Or it could be simply just another patent for a 3D printing use case, like they have done several times previously, typically for medical applications.
We won’t know for certain until Materialise reveals their plans.