This project is creating a novel modular, distributed, and highly scalable computational/physical system for multi-disciplinary research and applications in micro-manufacturing. The approach is a robotic-agent-based distributed information architecture of a type not found in industry today. The distributed nature of the agent-based system requires neither centralized control nor a centralized database for its operation, thereby avoiding communication and code complexity bottlenecks. The goals are to 1) dramatically reduce design, program, and deployment times compared with state-of-the-art systems, 2) greatly increase mechanical precision over existing methods, and 3) greatly reduce floor space requirements.

Intellectual Merit

The architecture is highly generic, and is applicable to multi-step flow-through production systems for domains such as micro-fabrication of small parts, assembly of meso- and micro-scale products, synthesis of discrete amounts of chemicals, and analysis of biological materials. The system addresses several difficult human-computer interface issues making the system more accessible to researchers and students and much easier to use compared with conventional approaches. In this work, collections of computational/physical agents are designed and programmed through a virtual 3D representation that is registered in space and synchronized in time with the actual micromanufacturing system. The system includes several automatic procedures such as calibration and multi-agent coordination which reduces programming tedium. We expect the developed system to be a suitable research platform where multiple, concurrent experiments can be run by faculty and students. The intention is also to provide a working system which can serve as an example for industry. The team has great expertise in this area, and their research will benefit both the research community through the development of new manufacturing techniques, but will also contribute to the field by expanding its scope of applicability.

Broader Impacts

This project provides a vision of compilable factories, and if broadly realized, represents a transformative breakthrough in automated assembly. This includes automated assembly of optical systems, mass spectrometers, 3D devices formed from metal parts, and mass replication of intelligent micro-robots for environmental monitoring. Moreover, education is a vital component of the proposed project. The enhanced minifactory provides a new learning environment for multi-robot programming and cooperative robotics. There is also a close interaction closely with manufacturing engineering faculty and students at Walla Walla University in Washington State. We also continue the fruitful student exchanges with micro-manufacturing laboratories at Technical University of Munich and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. As always, undergraduate students engage in the research and add a valuable and vital contribution to the work.

Project Report

This Computational Resources Infrastructure project generated hardware and software artifacts for a novel micromanufacturing system, called "minifactory" being developed at Carnegie Mellon University. Minifactory is a distributed system which needs neither a central control nor central database, unlike traditional manufacturing systems. The system emphasizes modular robotic agents that cooperatively perform high precision assembly operations. In this project, a total of 10 new high-precision pick-and-place robotic agents were designed, built, programmed, and operated. A total of 2 high-precision courier robotic agents based on novel closed-loop planar motors were designed, built, and operated. Six additional courier agents of a new design are currently under construction. Courier agents transport parts and sub-assemblies through the minifactory on air bearings and cooperate with the pick-and-place robots to perform high accuracy 4-degree-of-freedom assembly operations. Additionally, new real-time software was developed operating on all of the robots to manage sensing, actuation, and control as well as managing air pressure and vacuum functions. Each robot was programmed with a resident web server and web pages to provide dashboards or control panels over the Internet on remote desktop client computers, providing a graphical interface facilitating easy manual operation and rapid programming of the robots. Additionally, so-called publish/subscribe middleware software was installed on each robotic agent, facilitating agent-to-agent communication necessary for cooperative actions. Each robotic agent is intended to be a self-describing, self-representing manufacturing entity in a "plug and produce" system. The goal is to produce a manufacturing system that is easily and rapidly reconfigurable to meet the needs of the particular microproduct that is being made. The minifactory architecture is intended to be highly modular and generic, providing a platform technology for automated microassembly. Several classes of future products could benefit from this approach, including production of small actuators and sensors, small medical devices, smal health monitoring systems, and hybrid microsystems such as chip-scale atomic clocks, magnetometers, and gyroscopes. The major idea is that the precision motion equipment can be flexibly deployed and rapidly configured for a given product, leaving only small product-specfic elements like custom grippers and other fixtures to be needed. The present CMU minifactory is viewed as a laboratory demonstration of these capabilities that can potentially be used by students, faculty, and other stakeholders to rapidly prototype micromanufacturing procedures. Additional uses can be envisaged, including the addition of process steps that include additive manufacturing, and chemical synthesis or biological assays using wel plates carried through the minifactory by the courier agents.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Computer and Network Systems (CNS)
Application #
Program Officer
jeffrey trinkle
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
Carnegie-Mellon University
United States
Zip Code