It seems like 3-D printers can spit out just about anything these days. So why not robots?

That's the thrust of a joint project started by MIT, Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania and funded by $10 million from the National Science Foundation. Robots usually take years to design and build. The aim of this project is to make it possible to build robots on demand, sometimes for specific tasks, using 3-D printing technology.

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Roboticists have explored similar ideas before. For example, a team from the University of Pennsylvania developed a robot that builds itself with foam. But this joint project is a lot more comprehensive. In one sense, it wants to do for robots what printing technology did for desktop publishing and what 3-D printing may do for craft projects and prototypes.

The first steps will be to create the software used to tell the robot-building machine what that robot is for. Another important piece is writing the algorithms that control the assembly of the robot.

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Then there are the materials. Current 3-D printers use plastic or metal as the foundation for objects, and they generally can only use one type of material at a time. To build a robot, it's necessary that a 3-D printer be capable of dealing with multiple materials.

So far, the research team has built two simple prototype machines for designing, printing and programming. And they've printed a gripper as well as an insect-like robot that could explore a contaminated area. In those cases, the printing material for the robots' structure was folded paper.

Photo credit: Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory / MIT