Natsuo Akazawa frm PLENGoer Robotics is changing the way we think about robots: what they look like, where they live, what they do, and even how we make them.
Akazawa is pursuing his dream of developing a new type of robot, produced in what he calls a “futuristic factory.” He is the president and representative director of PLENGoer Robotics, which will ship its first product, a service robot called PLEN Cube, later this year.
PLEN Cube is not intended to live in a factory, but is made for your home or even your hand. It's an expressive and powerful hybrid of personal assistant and portable companion.
Akazawa’s futuristic factory is fueled by 3D printing. Team members across countries coordinate designs in real time using cloud based Autodesk Fusion 360 and prototype in house using Formlabs desktop stereolithography (SLA) 3D printers, saving upwards of 85 percent in time and costs for some of their components. This digital design and product development workflow has inspired the company to rewrite and revamp its product development strategy, developing what Akazawa calls the futuristic factory. Akazawa says he "dreamt of delivering to the whole world a robot produced and developed in this futuristic factory".
PLEN Cube’s design and appearance is essential to the success of the product, so the ability to rapidly prototype and test its enclosure and the mechanics that enable it to move proved crucial to the development process. 3D printed enclosures were also used in the prototypes for videos, early marketing and raising finance through crowdfunding.
“In order for people to use our product, it has to be fun and blend into people’s lives,” Akazawa wrote in a behind-the-scenes Medium post. “You can have the best technology in the world, but that won’t matter if the product is cumbersome, ugly, or dull.”
PLEN Cube moves in various ways to communicate. The ability to prototype the robot’s friendly appearance and set of movements was crucial to a successful final product.
The PLENGoer Robotics team understand the value of 3D printing in house for fast, cost effective, prototyping and initially started with an fused deposition modeling (FDM) system, but found they still needed to use outsourced services.
“The biggest problem was lack of measurement precision. In the end, the prototype output with the FDM 3D printer could be shown only as a rough prediction of the final product, and in the final stages of the prototyping process, parts were produced through outsourcing using an SLA 3D printer in order to ensure correct measurement precision and finishing,” Akazawa said.
“However, outsourcing increases cost, and even working with quick contractors would take one to two extra days. A decision was made to purchase an SLA 3D printer, and after asking feedback from some of our engineer friends, we purchased Formlabs’ Form 2.”
PLENGoer use the Form 2 SLA 3D printer to save time and costs when iterating and testing components of PLEN Cube.
PLENGoer Robotics saw significant and immediate cost savings from bringing 3D printing in house with the Formlabs Form 2.
3D printing a prototype of PLEN Cube’s outer casing resulted in a cost reduction of 95 percent compared to outsourcing to receive a CNC-milled master. Production time was cut by about 86 percent, taking only two days instead of two weeks, providing significant time and cost savings.
“In the case of outsourcing, we can’t make multiple prototypes on each occasion. The great advantage of the Form 2 used in-house is that we can repeatedly carry out tests,” said Kazuya Shibata, an engineer at PLENGoer Robotics.
“Another great advantage for engineers is the ability to reduce time spent thinking about various parameters and configurations. As soon as a thought pops into my head, it can be verified immediately by printing with the Form 2.”
3D printing in house also helps Shibata coordinate with colleagues in China and Ireland. Engineers across offices merge design data using cloud-based Autodesk Fusion 360 software, then, in Japan, Shibata prints designs over Wi-Fi on the Formlabs Form 2 to evaluate and share with the team. Soon, they hope to integrate Form 2s in every office.
“Even we are surprised that we can experience such prototyping and development processes,” Shibata said. “The impact on us has been great.”
The PLENGoer Robotics team plans to take the "futuristic factory" product development and prototyping processes they have develped with PLEN Cube and utilise the same approach for future products.
“While truly experiencing a new development process, we have been able establish certain cycles,” Akazawa said. “Using the expertise gained from PLEN Cube, we want to increase projects that are on a slightly smaller scale. We also want to refine PLEN Cube with second and third iterations. Through such a development process, we believe that tools such as 3D CAD and the Form 2 will be absolutely essential.”
Natsuo Akazawa and Kazuya Shibata, PLENGoer Robotics’ president and engineer, hold PLEN Cube prototypes 3D printed on the Form 2.