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Kinematics Spider Robot
One of Kinematics' modular robots, a Spider.
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A dog robot created with Kinematics modules
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Kinematics prototypes on a Stratasys machine
Rapid prototyping helped the toy off the ground.
Building blocks are traditionally one of our first toys, learning how stacking soft edged blocks on top of each other creates bigger structures is a basic motor skill we grasp at an early age, traditionally we move on to Duplo and then Lego as our young creative minds run wild with the idea of making things with our own hands.
Unfortunately, more often than not our creativity stops there, we move on to academic pursuits and are not encouraged to carry on making things. There is of course the maker community and those who continue with Lego’s more complex series like Mindstorms but for the majority of us we stop making and start learning theories we never end up putting into place.
There’s one project out there that wants us to continue to build from school age right through to our adult lives. Kinematics, a project out of Bauhaus University, Germany, aims to teach adults and children alike the basics of robotics with their modular robotic construction kits.
“Kinematics was created by my business partner, Leonhard Oschütz whilst he was studying product development at the same university as me in 2009.” says Kinematics’ co-founder Christian Guder “His topic for the course was ‘create your own dream machine’. He came up with a device that enables everyone to build their own 'dream machine' with modular construction kits we call Kinematics. There are several different modules and each one performs a different task; some have sensors, some have motors and one has the ‘brain’ we call it the Power Brain, which is responsible for the communication for all the other modules. If you have used them before it takes two to three minutes to put a working robot together, if not then it probably takes about ten mins to learn all the basics."
In an opinion that was recently mirrored by the UK Government, Christian feels that the current curriculum is not preparing children for our 21st century world: “The German Government has started to implement robotics and IT technology into schools, it is 2013 and the world around us is computerised and robotic. A lot of feedback we get from universities and industry leaders is that students are not prepared for engineering studies. We think it is necessary to educate our children in these things”
This is where Kinematics come in, the modular robots can be put together in a matter of minutes, and like Lego, children who use them often veer off track, creating ideas that the creators themselves couldn’t possibly dream of, “What we think is fascinating is that the animal robot kits really appeal to the girls, we tested it with children and whereas the boys love seeing a machine, a tractor or traditional robot the girls love the animals, they will build another animal that you’ve never seen before. Kids are ingenious they come up with such crazy ideas that they make you wonder where you lost your creativity. It is great part of our job to see kids who are really proud of something they’ve made with their own hands.”
3D Printing to the rescue
That Kinematics can even enter such a traditionally difficult market is not just a testament to the innovation of its co-founders but down, in part, to 3D printing. Both Christian and Leonhard are not what one would call “hardcore engineers” they are product designers. A chance meeting with Stratasys gave them the chance to rapidly create prototype parts and advance their project on at a speed that would have been impossible with traditional prototype manufacture.
“We can go into CAD, draw something and send it out to Stratasys or a third party rapid-manufacturing bureau and we have a prototype on our desk in just a couple of days. This means we can test it, improve it and get it sent out again and have the improved part right away, we call it ‘quick and dirty’ but it is really effective.” Explains Guder “We are developing hardware here, it is traditionally so expensive to develop but this method has opened doors to us to develop our product cheaply.
“Additive manufacturing technology gives us the ability to start such a company, I think 20 years ago it would have been really challenging to start a hardware company and compete with the big players. The tooling costs for injection moulding alone are so incredibly expensive, guys like us would not have been able to develop our product without serious money. With rapid prototyping we are able to build a product and show the world that it works.”
3D printing doesn’t just stop at the prototyping side for Kinematics either, they are aiming to bring their product to makers first and for them they have thought about home 3D printing. “We see our core business on the usability side; the software and the electronic hardware. We wouldn’t have a problem if people wanted to order the circuit boards from us and print their own modules. It is a nice vision for the future, but right now when we want to address the mass market I think it is a bit unrealistic to say that all the millions of people out there will be using 3D printing technology. The maker scene is different so there is definitely opportunity out there for those guys to be printing parts.”
As with the Raspberry Pi phenomenon the idea of giving the makers/hackers of this world an open-source piece of kits that they can then go off and do as they please is exciting to the inventors. Christian detailed to us the outline of their upcoming Kickstarter campaign and explained what they expecting back off the community not just in terms of funding but ideas too, “We want to know what else is possible. Right now, we are spending so much time on the business side of the project that we lose a bit of creativity and vision of what is possible. We want that feedback and creativity from the community and want to make this product, especially for the maker scene, a bit open-source so they can hack, write their own code, write their own user-interface just to see what else is possible with the product and to get a fresh view on the potential.”
The makers/hackers are just one part of a well thought out business plan that will be launched in three stages; starting with engineering and science students then moving onto the maker market, before launching a mass market toy at Christmas next year. “We want to teach the kids who don’t have maker parents that it is a very fun, very interesting thing to do and to educate them to become makers. It is our goal to show kids how fascinating it is to build things but we don’t believe that you can do that with technology that is from 50 or 60 years ago that’s why we connect our robots to smartphones and to the internet. We want to be an interface between an old analogue toy and a computer game.”
The current convergence between physical and digital realms is only being aided with 3D printing, as with MakieLab and Printcraft people want a bit of tactility in their lives. It would seem that Kinematics have got that trend nailed and we look forward to them becoming the building blocks of the future.