Turn a design concept into a tangible, functioning product
Identify and respond to potential market demand
Keys to success
Ease of learning Solid Edge
Accuracy of geometry
Ability to hold various design options open before commit-ting to one
Solid Edge design data inte-gration with manufacturing processes
Easy development of an integrated range of components
75 percent time savings on certain tasks
Drawings can be produced for both engineering and market-ing needs
High-quality rendered product images support early marketing
The Robosynthesis Modular Platform was conceived at the start of the 21st century when Norman was living in France and exploring the concept of a new construc-tion toy. He mentioned this to an engineer friend who introduced him to Solid Edge® software from product lifecycle manage-ment (PLM) specialist Siemens PLM Software. “It was a revelation,” says Norman. “What had begun as a rather dreamy intellectual idea became sharp and clear. I picked my way into Solid Edge and found more and more functionality. It was a watershed moment when I realized I could simply sketch, then extrude to create a 3D shape. I went on to discover that I could put bits together and create an assembly or place parts in a library and take them out later. There was a sense of pure delight when I updated a part I’d built and it updated in the assembly as well. To top all of this, I could break up an assem-bly and go back to where I was. There are clearly lots of little ‘Eureka!’ moments as a user becomes quicker and more confident.”
As his ideas evolved, Norman went on to consider, then discard, an architectural application. Education was the main theme for several years as he funded fur-ther development by providing school and technical college students with an oppor-tunity to study mechatronics and prototyp-ing through programs at IFMA, the advanced mechanical engineering institute in Clermont-Ferrand. A suggestion from a family member then led Norman to modu-lar robotics. “I realized that I needed to drive this to a tangible outcome, and I became really focused,” he says. “The main challenge was to create and build one part that could join components together and rotate.”
Norman arrived at the answer in the form of a universal connector that fixes in any direction. This is critical to the Robosynthesis Modular Platform, and he subsequently patented the design. Having solved the problem of physical connectiv-ity, he set out to create a means of data connectivity. A special jack plug designed to absorb vibration and withstand force carries electrical channels through its core and provides communication, data transfer and power charging capabilities.
Norman made another leap forward with the design of a wheel system inspired by the webbed feet of ducks. Named CLAWWS, this system enables a robot to maneuver up steps and over unstructured surfaces such as bramble bushes. “Finding the precise geometry for this certainly took a long time, but with Solid Edge I never got stuck,” comments Norman. “I could explore one version, save it, try out another and go back. What was really help-ful was the ability to keep my options open. Decision-making can sometimes bring creativity to a close and I wanted to continue in a state of uncertainty until I was absolutely sure. I found that I could chop and change very quickly before I actually decided.”
“As Solid Edge has provided new function-alities in synchronous modeling, some pro-cesses are almost immeasurably speedier,” Norman adds. “Where I would have bud-geted a whole day for certain tasks, they can now be completed by mid-morning, a 75 percent reduction in time.” Pursuing the animal theme, Norman designed the robots to have a low center of gravity for stability and a tail that acts as a damper and prevents flipping. Parts are deliberately springy and flexible so that the robots are both agile and resilient. Components are manufactured by tooling a computer numerical control (CNC) machi- ned master, then vacuum casting in a vari-ety of plastics. “We use plastics because rigid things break easily and production costs are lower,” says Norman. “However, we coat these plastics in a fine layer of metal instead of using separate metal components. This metalization process, which we applied to the universal connec-tor, enables us to make parts that are strong, cheap and light. Material science has been a whole new learning curve for me. I’ve picked up a lot of knowledge about differ-ent aspects such as how to design parts for strength and flexibility.”
One of Norman’s particular interests lies in the legibility and navigability of our world and its contents. He was therefore keen to ensure that the Robosynthesis Modular Platform would be easy for an untrained end user to understand and negotiate. In addition, there is no need for any bolting at the industrial assembly stage – every-thing presses together with a pleasing and reassuring “click.” Norman notes that the ability to produce high-quality rendered images of the components has been par-ticularly useful for marketing purposes. “The more recent releases of Solid Edge have helped us considerably.”
For Norman there has been a sequence of development milestones. “The creative process does work in mysterious ways,” he says. “Just as observation can distort a particle within subatomic physics, the act of scrutinizing may not yield definitive answers. The big challenge is always to see where a concept might be going, and that is not necessarily easy.” His determi-nation has, however, led to a range of patents and the Robosynthesis Modular Platform is attracting intense interest. Potential applications include demining, agricultural activities and the maintenance of critical infrastructure. “Despite my enthusiasm for elegant design, our robots are really only components, and Solid Edge is key for us because it is great for design-ing components,” concludes Norman.
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