Robots Need Design Flexibility

Investment in robotic designs of all manner is through the roof. Assembly line robots, personal butler robots, collaborative robots, warehouse robots, if you can think of a use for a robot there is pretty good chance that someone, somewhere, is working on that robot design right now.

In my experience, all new product development needs some design flexibility which is where low-volume rapid tooling and no tooling rapid manufacturing technologies come in. But, when it comes to robots, design flexibility is even more essential because you are designing something completing new that you think the market will accept and adopt, but you don’t yet know. Although the robotics industry has been around for a long time there is no prolonged history of widely acceptable commercially viable robot designs (outside of manufacturing assembly) to draw from, to help you make better-calculated risk assessments on your new robot design.

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My advice? Save your project dollars and stay away from costly mass production injection molding tooling as long as you can. Instead opt for no tooling manufacturing technologies like CNC Machining or Urethane Casting (tooling yes, but disposable low life tooling) to help you test and validate your design in the market. You may be very confident in your design but erring on the side of caution until the market gives you some feedback as to whether you are on track or not is always a viable strategy.

CNC Machining Robots – A great option for metal or plastic robot parts. Highly durable parts, an incredible range of surface finishing options, and precision dimensional tolerances are all good manufacturing benefits when making robot parts via CNC Machining. The process is one-off, so the next iteration is easily achievable with no project dollars wasted on tooling that would likely be deemed useless if you have to change your design based on market feedback.

Urethane Casting Robots – if your final manufacturing process will be injection molded parts, then, in my opinion, there is no better option for early testing and design verification than Urethane Casting. it very closely mimics the properties of injection molding, allows for detailed surface finishes that are available through the injection molding process and urethane casting can self-colour each part so no post finishing is necessary unless desired.

3D Printing Robots – Not my favourite manufacturing process for early robot samples but I feel it needs talking about because 3D Printing is everywhere these days. My reservations are in large part because when you bring 3D Print design into the mix it often leads to designs that are not mass manufacturable. But, if you have a highly specialised robot design, that is a niche low-volume and high-profit margin design, then 3D Printing may be for you. Not my choice for robots, but it has its place and is getting better year over year.

Save your capital for a later date when you are truly ready for injection molding and mass production of your robot. Embrace low-volume rapid manufacturing technologies for the speed and design flexibility that they offer. It is easy to make the next iteration when you have not invested in tooling. It is incredibly painful and sometimes not economically possible to make that next iteration when you have invested heavily in tooling. Your robot might just say thank you in the end, if it has a speaker 🙂

Gary Moran

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