At Unbounded Robotics, Smart Compromises Bring Down Costs

12/19/13Follow @wroush

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we were going in a very positive, exciting direction,” she says. “But from our team’s perspective, it was like, ‘When are we going to start showing this to people and doing things with it in the real world?’”

So the four Unbounded co-founders decided to start over, outside Willow, with a blank slate. (Well, not completely blank—more on that below.) In a mid-December interview at Unbounded’s workshop in Santa Clara, Wise shared a few of the strategies that helped the company get UBR-1 to market in just 10 months. They’re the kinds of methods that more robotics companies may need to emulate if they want to build robots that customers will find affordable.

1. Pick Your Markets Carefully

PR2, Willow Garage’s versatile, twin-armed robot, wasn’t just expensive—it was also heavy (550 lbs) and so big it couldn’t fit through some doors. “When PR2 was originally envisioned, we thought we were only ever going to make five of them,” Wise says. “It was meant to be this grand prototype.” That meant there wasn’t much of an attempt to make the robot easy to manufacture, or to figure out exactly which problems it could cost-effectively solve.

Unbounded Robotics went at the problem from the opposite direction. Based on their need-finding work for the “PR2 mini” project, the team figured there were three market niches where a mobile manipulator robot might be welcomed. “We thought about logistics—pick-and-place, packing boxes, and things like that,” Wise recounts. “We thought of elder care. And then the long-term vision is supermarkets. For all those things, mobility is a major requirement. It needs to rove around and do the same things that people can do. Most likely, it will be doing things on tabletops or picking things up off the floor. And it will probably be lifting objects that are less than 1.5 kilograms.”

Those basic requirements drove everything else, from the height of the robot to the placement of sensors to the type of motors that would be needed inside the robot’s shoulder and arm joints. At the most basic level, UBR-1 is designed to help humans with precise but repetitive tasks that involving moving things around. In that sense, Unbounded could be seen as a competitor for Rethink Robotics. The Boston-based startup, founded by famed MIT roboticist Rod Brooks, makes a stationary, two-armed manipulator robot called Baxter that excels at tasks like picking objects off a conveyor belt and putting them into boxes. The big difference, Wise says, is that UBR-1 can move around.

“We want to be more like people and have the robot collaborate with people and trade tasks,” Wise says. “People are not always in one place doing one thing.” In an automated warehouse, for example, UBR-1 robots could pick objects off shelves, deliver them to other locations, and pack them into boxes (a scenario that might put Unbounded in competition with yet another Boston-area robotics company, Amazon subsidiary Kiva Systems).

To find UBR-1 its first real job, Unbounded is working with industry partners (Wise can’t yet name names) who are testing the robot in real-world situations. “We decided that how we were going to go at the market was to find a partner, start developing basic, MVP [minimum viable product] apps for that partner, and concentrate on apps that we thought could translate well between several types of companies,” she says.

2. Build It Right the First Time

In the world of software startups, the new guiding ethic in product development is “rapid iteration.” That means building something, however incomplete; testing it on real users; gathering feedback; and starting over. “A lot of people have really bought into this idea of ‘build it, break it, build it, break it,” Wise observes. “But with every ‘break it’ you are wasting a month—and in robotics, you are wasting $70,000.”

The team at Unbounded built exactly one physical prototype for UBR-1. Wise hauled it out of a back room during our interview: it’s a science-fair-style contraption made of particle board, a few cheap motors and batteries, and a Microsoft Kinect. The team called it Clunky. “This is how we feel about iteration,” Wise says. “If it can’t be done in a couple of hours, it’s not worth doing.”

The alternative to iteration is simple, Wise says: “Careful, thoughtful design, using the tools that are available, like FEA [finite element analysis] and simulation.” Unbounded’s first purchase as a company—even before it had office space—was a copy of SolidWorks, the 3D computer-aided design program from Dassault Systèmes. From February to May, the team slaved over … Next Page »

Wade Roush is Chief Correspondent and Editor At Large at Xconomy. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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  • CrvenaZvezda

    Hope they really succeed! I personally would without thinking spend up to US $1500 for a laundry folding robot.