I’m convinced that the future of robotics — especially service robotics — is tied to the development and acceptance of mass customization. Consider the typical challenges faced by an enthusiast in creating a complete robot. First, there’s the hardware platform — from the supporting infrastructure to the drive train to the effectors. Unless you start from scratch — a costly and time-consuming affair — you must identify and purchase a crawler or roamer or other platform suitable to your needs. However, have you ever tried mixing and matching an arm from one manufacturer with the body of another? Even if it’s possible to readily bolt the effector securely to the main body, there remain issues from electrical connectivity to how to best compensate for the extra weight and shift in the center of gravity.
Then, there’s the issue of sensor selection — from US range detectors to IR radar. Again, this is a task- and cost-dependent selection, assuming what you need is even available off- the-shelf. There’s also the power system, communications system, and all-important computational hardware and software to consider. Typically, you must either cobble together a unique assemblage of components from a variety of vendors or buy a pre-configured robot from a single vendor that’s (at best) a compromise. On top of it all, because your final robot is a unique assemblage of components, sensors, effectors, and software, the software routines crafted by another developer will probably require significant modification before they’re useable in your robot.
Other industries facing the same challenges turned to the mass customization model, often with astounding commercial success. For example, take Dell and Apple. When you order a PC from the Dell website, you scroll through pages describing options and prices. You add whatever features you can’t live without — while knowing that regardless of your choices, the machine will boot and run your favorite programs. The Apple website offers many of the same design options — including drives with various capacities, DVD and CD player/recorder options, extra memory, video memory, and monitor sizes. This is possible because each component manufacturer abides by industry standards.
Mass customization has been applied successfully to other, less obvious industries, as well. For example, one of my interests is building, refurbishing, and playing electric guitars. However, as with robotics, designing a guitar involves careful consideration of myriad factors. Critical issues range from neck size and geometry and the number and configuration of electronic pickups, to the composition of the body. All of these factors and more affect the tone and play-ability of a guitar. Furthermore, to put the pieces together requires an expensive set of specialized tools and the expertise to use them.
The mass customization companies catering to custom guitar builders (such as http://www.FirstAct.com) take care of the standards issues, allowing you to focus on appearance and geometry. The universe of possible components isn’t available to you, but the component selection is generally rich enough to create a custom guitar suitable for any budget. As a result, with a click of the mouse and credit transaction a custom guitar can be at your doorstep in a matter of weeks. No need to fully equip a woodworking shop or learn how to wire your own pickup coils, and (given the skill) you can play music written for any other electric.
So, if mass customization can work for other industries, why has it been slow to take off in robotics? One factor is the lack of a deep-pocketed Dell or Apple in the world of robotics. A few hardware platforms have been widely accepted by the enthusiast community — the Parallax BoeBot comes to mind. However, most robot models sell in the hundreds unless they make it to the game/entertainment market.
The underlying issue is, of course, the lack of an industry standard robot configuration (akin to the PC) or a proprietary design with a devoted following (akin to the Apple Mac). Certainly, standards have been advanced to assist in the development of reusable robot software components (such as the Microsoft Robotics Studio) and several vendors offer platforms ready to be populated with components. But there are no real robotics standards from a body large enough to enjoin the entire consumer robotics industry, such as the IEEE.
So, what can we do, as mere enthusiasts, to nudge mass customization of robotics along? Do what developers in other industries do: Identify best of breed and then integrate them into a good product line. The first hurdle is, of course, defining “best,” given each component manufacturer has a stake in declaring their product as such.
Take a moment and imagine what you’d do, given unlimited access to commercial robotic components and systems. What’s the best platform out there for small service robots? Medium sized? What are the best (i.e., most affordable, easily programmed, compatible, etc.) controllers? Sensors? Motors?
As a first step in developing industry recognized standards, a consortia of companies and developers could interface the best out there and then provide options to suit different classes of users. If you or your group/company is up for the challenge — or currently engaged in the challenge — then please drop me a line. It’s time to connect like-minded developers. SV