Robots 10X Faster, 10X Cheaper: Modular Development Platform And 3D Printing Lets You Build Autonomous Robots Like Lego
Can you build robots 10X faster and 10X cheaper?
Yes, according to the CEO of a six-year-old Silicon Valley robotics company that has created a 200-module-strong development platform for autonomous bots. Pick the components you need for your particular solution, bolt them together with 3D printing for any components you might need that are specific to your requirements, and you have a robot much quicker, much faster.
“Traditionally an approach will take two to three years [and] tens of millions to get to the market with a robot,” OhmniLabs CEO Thuc Vu told me recently in a TechFirst podcast. “With our approach, because we have all the building blocks … we just like combine them together with our printers, with our 3D printing technology, and so it allows us to operate a lot faster.”
The result, Vu says, is a three to six month development timetable and under $1 million of investment to bring a new robot to market. And that, he says, is unheard of.
The speed might indeed be, but the concept is not. Not entirely, at least. Blue Ocean Robotics, a “robotics venture factor” in Denmark, has something of a similar idea. Build the hardware and software components you need for virtually any robot, then rip, mix, burn in true Jobsian fashion to create new iterations of robots for wildly varying tasks.
For OhmniLabs, that’s 200+ components: “a very rich, comprehensive library of robotics components, sort of like the building blocks that you can plug and play on the robots.”
We’re talking things on the hardware side like a drivetrain, CPU, a display unit, audio capabilities, and grippers for manipulating objects. On the software side, that includes things like computer vision modules, teleoperation, 3D sensing or perception modules, navigation software, and so on.
The result is being able to build a few units of an experimental design very quickly, get it to market, test it, and adjust before committing to a production run of 10,000 or more.
And, of course, speed.
Listen to the interview behind this story:
“A team from Stanford and Target reached out to us, wanting us to build a robot for them that can use UV component to clean commonly high-touch surfaces,” Vu says. “And we managed to do that just within one month from the time we talked to them to [have] something to demo.”
Where there are particularities about a robotics design requirement that would typically require manufacturing, and dies, and outsourcing, OhmiLabs simply insures it via 3D printing.
“We just need to send the CAD files to the printers … and boom, the next day we have a new variation that we can experiment with,” Vu says.
The idea is similar to Blue Ocean Robotics, and it’s as old as engineering itself: don’t reinvent the wheel. Because most robots are mostly conglomerates of very similar technologies.
“70% [of each robot’s software stack] is generic; 30% is very specialized,” Blue Ocean Robotics CEO Claus Risager says.
So whether you need a package delivery robot or a security robot, they’re both going to need some form of locomotion, some form of environmental sensing, some way of navigating from where they are to where they’ll need to be, potentially some form of mapping to be efficient and thorough about routes and speed, onboard intelligence for autonomous operation, plus an entire communications and control stack for new information and new orders.
And that’s likely just scratching the surface.
But the result is powerful: opening up robot design, manufacture, and use to far more people and companies and uses.
“What we wanted to really do is to democratize robotics technology, basically open it up so that many people can work together, can build different types of robots.” Vu says. “Sort of like driving the ubiquity of robots in this world and bringing value right to the user, rather than just us building robots. We want to be an ecosystem that can use our modular platform, and you can build your own flavor of robots for your own customers.”
Intel inside, sort of, for the world of robotics.
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