Matchmaking at a sushi bar
Two Aussies far from home and without Stanford degrees, as they put it, have accomplished something refreshingly extraordinary in Silicon Valley: They are building robots using only three parts.
What’s refreshing? Simplicity. Eli Whitney and Henry Ford now have counterparts in robotics.
The elegant thinking behind such a simple idea, engineering that could well revolutionize the building of robots by anyone who wants one, is how fortunes can be made. Ford’s Model-T did both.
“If we can take that technology and hand it to millions of people — millions of minds — then the bandwidth for innovation in robotics can radically increase,” said Daniel Pizzata, the circuit board specialist at the two-man Modbot laboratory.
Such an eventuality could turn any backyard garage or basement workshop anywhere in the world into hotbed of robot building. It could also provide any small and midsize business (SMB) having a need for a mechanical helping hand around the biz to actually afford one.
An inexpensive, easily operated robot helper, capable of performing tasks exactly as needed, might just turn out to be the robot Model-T that millions of SMBs have been waiting to buy, rent or lease.
His partner, Adam Ellison, who Pizzata first encountered at a sushi bar, is the brazing torch, metal-bending, mechanical engineer of the pair. The partners have been inseparable ever since their Makimono rolls together.
These days separating for any reason is virtually impossible, since Modbot is a 24/7 near frenzy of hardware building and testing and rebuilding and retesting. All of it accomplished — and appreciatively so — in the friendly, comfy confines of San Francisco incubator, Highway 1.
As Autodesk’s Line//Shape//Space interview explained it: “Modbot is a system of affordable and re-usable modules that snap together, filling the gap between $100 hobby and $20,000 industrial motion equipment.”
Price, availability and complexity of robots are the riddles that the Modbot pair hope to unravel. Pizzata believes that the primary reasons that robots aren’t more visible in manufacturing is that “robots are too expensive and complex. They’re locked away in expensive research facilities.”
Servo, link and joint: basic building blocks
The cool piece of engineering is the small, round servo, inside of which is the motor, bearings for load bearing, the transmission, and the encoder. Everything neatly packaged and then slipped inside a joint ready for links to be attached.
When asked about Modbot integrating into automated manufacturing, Ellison was enthusiastic about his robot’s capabilities. “My background is actually in automated manufacturing in the automotive industry,” he told AZO Robotics. “The way I see this being used is in the flexible and fast development of small manufacturing lines.
“There is a big shift in consumer products and other products, which customize manufacturing. What that means is that manufacturers are doing smaller runs of action on a particular product. Reconfigurability is really important for them,” he said.
“We see Modbot sitting long-term in an environment where, not only are the software and production of a part reconfigurable, but the robot itself is also reconfigurable,” Ellison said. “You could convert your six degrees of freedom robot arm into a 3D printer, and then back again when you didn’t need it. As you can imagine, that would add flexibility to a manufacturing line.”
Increasing the pace of innovation
Here are the co-founders of Modbot at Hardware Battlefield (2014) pitching their robot:
Continuum of standardization
If Ellison and Pizatta are successful with the Modbot concept and end product, such standardization will point toward more standardization from raw materials through to manufacturing of the Modbot end products.
Dr. David M. Anderson’s Build-to-Order & Mass Customization outlines how the elements of standardization contribute to the overall process:
Tool standardization. A subject related to part Standardization is tool Standardization, which determines how many different tools are required for assembly, alignment, calibration, testing, repair, and service.
Feature standardization. “Features” are any geometry that requires a separate tool like a drill, ream, hole punch, bend radii, and cutting tool bit for machine tools. These tools need to be standardized using the same procedures as parts.
Raw materials standardization. If raw materials can be standardized, then the processes can be flexible enough to make different products without any setup to change materials, fixturing mechanisms, or cutting tools.
Process standardization. Standardization of processes results from the concurrent engineering of products and processes to ensure that the processes are actually specified by the design team, rather than being left to chance or “to be determined later.”
The Modbot revolution and 3D printing
The advent of 3D printing with its liberating capabilities for customization and mass customization will have profound effects on Modbot standardization and the continuum of standardization.
Any Modbot developer anywhere in the world, including Ellison and Pizatta, could scale up or down the three-piece Modbot construction set at will.
Want to build larger servos to build bigger robots capable of doing big-boy jobs? Done. Conversely, need to miniaturize the servos for small jobs? Also done. Joint and link customization can easily scaling up or down as well.
The key is the simplicity of a three-part robot from which anything is possible. For that we need thank these Aussies for sharing their Modbot touch of genius with the rest of us.