digital fabrication

The Four Levels of Robotic Automation

Here at Because We Can, we work with a variety of robots and robotic tools. We've almost a decade of experience with it, and we've learned a great deal along the way. And we love to share what we've learned with you.

We interchangeably use the terms 'robot', 'robotic tools', and 'automation' to all mean the same thing: whether by a physical robot, custom computer code, CNC tool, or some combination therein, you're automating some task such that it's not being done by the labor of a person.

When thinking about having a robot do a job, it's important to know why you're going to have the robot do something rather than a person. Robots aren't always better than people, and can be expensive to set up, so you run the risk of spending a lot of time and money with not enough return. Or actually making the end result worse by trying to automate it. Automating something doesn't automatically make it better, and robots aren't great at everything.

We've found that there are four levels of tasks one can give a robot, each increasing in complexity of what the robot can do versis a person. Each one has it's own challenges and risks, so it's important to know where the task you're looking to automate falls. Critically thinking of it in this way will help you from making a costly mistake, and make the best use of automation for your company.

Level One: Same Job, Only Cheaper.

This is a task where it doesn't really matter if the task is being done by a person or a robot. Packing boxes, sorting/loading parts, moving pallets around a warehouse, and other rather basic tasks are good examples what we call Same Job, Only Cheaper. It's where the only value added by doing the task with a robot is that, once the robot is setup, it can do the job cheaper than a person can. Maybe that's because the robot is able to work 24/7, maybe it's because automating the task frees up someone to do higher-value work, maybe it's because the robot replaces several workers and thus is just plain cheaper over time. But what's key here is that whatever the task is, it's not that the robot is that much better at it, it's really just a matter of economics. So when automating this sort of task, the setup and ongoing maintenance costs of the automation are really important to keep under control. Also it's important to remember that robots tend to be very non-adaptable, and can be expensive to re-tool when the task changes. So the economics of it might not work out if retooling costs keep eating up any savings from having a robot do the job instead of a person. People are smart, flexible, and adaptable. Robots aren't.

Level Two: Robot Does It Better.

This is a task where a robot can do the task better than a person. Repetitive production welding, assembly line painting/assembly, basic CNC milling, and other tasks that depend upon accuracy and repeatability are good examples of tasks we call the Robot Does It Better. The value add is obvious, for here the robot is obviously better at the task than a person. But it's important to really understand the task, and if it's really true that the robot is better in this specific instance. While a robot can make a great production welder, being more consistent than a person, if the welding requires great finesse, lots of one-off situations (like repairing elements), or hard-to-reach locations, a person could still be better in the bigger picture. Because setting up the robots takes a non-trivial amount of time and money, it may be better for some tasks to be handled by a skilled person rather than a robot, even if theoretically the robot could do a more accurate and consistent job once set up. Skilled people can make amazing things, robots can only do exactly what you set them up to do.

Level Three: Robot Makes It Easy.

This is a task where not only does a robot do it better, but it makes something that would normally be unbearably complex simple. Complex CNC milling, complex sheet metal folding / punching, complex assembly, and other tasks where every part is unique and there are many parts are good examples of what we call the Robot Makes It Easy. While it would be time-consuming and difficult for a person to cut out hundreds of different unique parts, it's trivial for a robot to do so. This is an area we here at Because We Can are very familiar with, as many of our designs would be far too complex to produce economically by hand. It's an exciting area where working with a robot can add a lot of value. However, while we cut out almost all our parts using robotic tools, we still hand-assemble everything. The key with tasks like this is to use the robot for what it's great for, and use the people for what they are great for. Because we're very rarely making the same thing twice, and we pride ourselves on our high level of craftsmanship of what we make, we've found that the combination of robot-cut parts and skilled assembly and finishing is a winning combination for the kind of work we do.

Level Four: Robot Makes It Possible.

This is a task that can only be done by a robot, and simply can't be done by a person. Working in extremely hazardous locations, trochoidal milling processes, additive/subtractive combined manufacturing, and other tasks that are only possible by using a robot are good examples of tasks we call the Robot Makes It Possible. A great example here is the aforementioned trochoidal milling, A.K.A. 'high speed toolpaths', where a CNC machine moves in an incredibly complex and fast series of arc motions no person would be able to do, no matter how talented a machinist, to cut out complex parts significantly faster. It's not just that the robot is better at this task, it's that there is no way a person could even do the same task in the same way. This is an area where robots can add a significant amount of value, and in some instances can even be the basis for an entire company, invention, or industry. However these are also some of the most complex tasks to use a robot for, requiring either expensive software, talented engineers, or in many cases both. These tasks also require a great deal of vision, for much of the time it's something that's never really been done that way before. So these tasks can also require a great deal of creativity. However, thankfully, due to modern software, sometimes these sorts of tasks can be made accessible. For example, Fusion 360's CAM module does HSM toolpathing, and even makes the process very easy and accessible to even beginning machinists. So the real risk of these tasks is either trying to do them in a way that's too complex, or re-inventing a solution someone else already has that's better than what you came up with. If you think it's only possible with a robot, then you want to do your research and legwork, and find the very best way to only do it with a robot.

While automation is a powerful force, robots are totally awesome, and we dearly love our CNC tools, just like with any technology knowing when and how to apply it is the key to great success. We think that the real money is in empowering people, not replacing them, and that trying to fully automate everything quickly has diminishing returns. People working together with robots can make better, more amazing things more efficiently than robots alone ever could.

We hope our four levels are useful to your thinking, and we'd love to hear what you may have discovered working with these tools too.

BecauseWeDynamo, a set of Fabrication Nodes for Project Dynamo and Revit

We here at Because We Can love leveraging technology and creating our own unique way of working to make great things. While we’ve developed a decent amount of in-house software to help our work over the years, I’m very excited and proud to begin sharing some of that work with you, with the initial release of “BecauseWeDynamo”.

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It’s a set of custom-made Nodes for Project Dynamo focused on fabrication. You can find it in the Package Manager in Dynamo under BecauseWeDynamo and the open-source code is hosted here on GitHub.

A wonderful example of what this is all about is shown with the complex triangle walls of our recently completed Shipping Container Lounge project. The organic, flowing interior walls are made up of hundreds of unique triangles joined together to make a fluid, undulating, expressive (yet affordable!) surface.

Making something like this without some automation is almost impossible; the complexity can be hard to manage both in the design and in the building. So we used what’s called in our industry “Generative Design” where the combination of parametric 3D models and intelligent functional programming are used together to have the computer generate the design for you. You set up the rules and the smarts, and let the computer figure out the rest.

Autodesk Revit is wonderful at producing parametric models. We used it to made a special triangle object or ‘Family’ as they are called in Revit that you can flex using math into whatever size and configuration you need. You set the location of it’s three corner points, and the Family produces a flat triangle with radius tips, an offset ‘gap’ between it and the triangle next to it, and even proper placement for the joining hardware and more. This let us ‘hang’ these Adaptive Families off of 3D splined curves, making it easy to control the complex surface of the wall. Rather than model every triangle, we simply can push and pull control points on the splines, and have all the triangles model themselves.

However, just having a nice model of something is only the first 1/3rd of actually getting it built. Managing the production and assembly of hundreds of unique parts can be very daunting! This is where automation via functional programming is a huge help. We needed some way to export every triangle in a format that works with our CNC Router, and we need to label every triangle for ease of assembly. Doing it manually would take forever and is error-prone. Much better to produce a ‘script’ and let the computer automate that task for us!

Project Dynamo is a ‘functional visual scripting language’ for creating, manipulating, and automating all sorts of design data by non-programmers. Rather than write code from scratch, or call on existing libraries, and produce a stand-alone application like a software developer might, tools like Dynamo let us easily create one-off workflow solutions to automate small repetitive tasks and model impressively complex objects. It works fanatically well with Autodesk Revit, and thus was an obvious choice. Plus we really dig it, and dig the people working on it, so it was a joy to use.

Rather than write code, where the ‘flow’ of the program is abstract and non-visual, tools like Dynamo let you ‘draw’ your program. Perfect for visual designers like us! By connecting various Nodes together, you ‘wire’ together a solution for your project-specific problems, iteratively working your way through it as the code runs live and you see the immediate results.

Now, Dynamo is rather new, and it didn’t have all the Nodes we needed for this project. So we decided to create our own custom Nodes to scratch our own itches, and shared them openly for other designer-fabricators to make use of. For as we have for years now we release most of what we do under a creative-commons license.

So one thing our custom Nodes help do is parse the Revit model, label every triangle, lay them all out flat, and then export them to our CNC router for production. Every triangle is not only labeled, each edge of the triangle is labeled so you can easily figure out what edges go together. It made short work of this problem, and helped us make this wonderful and complex design efficiently and effectively.

Within BecauseWeDynamo you’ll find Nodes for part labeling, DXF exporting (with proper true curves!), mesh topology walking, edge labeling, and even our own custom old-school line-based pen-plotter style font suitable for CNC production. We’ve also got some auto-sectioning tools ala 123D Make, and are currently working on Nodes to help automate shop drawing production and development of complex surfaces. You’ll find on the GitHub site some great working examples, and we’ll be developing more samples, how-tos, and actual physical case study objects as well.

Our ongoing goal with this project is to make the fabrication of elements in Project Dynamo and Revit easier and more efficient; thus empowering all designers to be able to make great things like we do.

Bay Area Digital Fabrication Club meets this Thursday

The Bay Area Digital Fabrication Club meet-up is meeting this Thursday.

Graciously hosted by BlueSprout, Oakland's new tech factory, the Club is an informal and fun user's group where designers, fabricators, and artsts share tips and tricks about these amazing tools. This month's meeting is all about cheap and/or free 3D modeling options for 3D printing & subtractive fabrication.

Remember, bring something you've made to show & tell, and get a chance to win a prize: $60 worth of 3D printing filament or CNC tooling, your pick!

Would love to see you there!

Bay Area Digital Fabrication Club starting up!

We're getting a local Digital Fabrication Club off the ground! Click here to join the Meetup.

It's an informal meetup to compare notes, enjoy some pizza and beer, and to help support each other's work. The group will cover the whole range of digital fabrication from subtractive (CNC) to additive (3D printing) to manipulative (Kuka arms!).

First meeting is this Thursday, April 17th. It's going to be at BlueSprout, the Oakland-based hardware, industry, and small business accelerator we've been helping start.

If you love digital fabrication as much as we do, we'd love to see you there!

Shopbot's new Handibot!

Shopbot, makers of our beloved and tirelessly working robot Frank, have launched a Kickstarter to fund the development of their awesome new little CNC machine, the Handibot!

If you were at Maker Faire this year, you got to see this impressive little portable CNC router. Perfect for jobsite work! I'm expecting a big future for this little guy.

Great thing is that if you know how to use a Shopbot at all, you already know all you need to use this new robot. And if you don't, Shopbot is looking to team up with various app developers. I can see lots of small apps for this; apps to route door latchset pockets without having to take the door off its hinges, cutting perfect circles for bathroom fixture install (like they show in this video), and a whole lot more!

So you should help back their Kickstarter and put these empowering CNC tools into more people's hands!

Keynote Speech at Autodesk University 2011

Jeffrey McGrew, our principal and co-founder, gave a keynote speech at Autodesk University this year! The whole keynote is embedded above, and Jeffrey's on around 24 minutes in.

Core 77 also transcribed his speech, and posted it on there blog, with a nice little forward.

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Instructable on the Serpent Twins Tails

Our good friends over at the Instructables asked us if we wouldn't post up how we made the Serpent Twin's tails. So here it is!

Enjoy! It's our first big instructable so we'd love for you to go there and leave us a comment on it.

Also, if you want to see the Serpent Twins in person, there is a big party this weekend at Jon's shop. All are welcome!

The Serpent Twins

A couple months ago we signed on to help with Form & Reform's project for the Burning Man festival: The Serpent Twins project. After a very busy few months (and one very dusty adventure!) they came together wonderfully.

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The final two fully-drivable serpent sculptures not only look amazing, they are filled with color-changing LEDs. Color and video routines can play down their entire length, creating stunning effects. With a full sound system and accelerometer built into each head, the lights can also change and react depending on the movement and sound as they drive along.

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One of the main parts we helped out with were the tails.

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While the heads were largely handmade, the tails were fully digitally fabricated. It took a combination of software tools to make this happen. The graceful original form was modeled in Revit, bulkheads and bolts then rationalized in Inventor, and the skin unfolded in Rhino. The digital files for the entire thing were sent out for high-definition CNC plasma cutting. The internal frame slotted together, welded, and then the skins were bolted on. The 'carvel' style skinning lends the tails a very viking ship look and construction, while the fasteners and finishing fit into the overall aviation-theme.

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The sheet metal skins of the tails are bolted around a bulkhead frame...

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And then attached to their own trailer, where we hide the batteries and generator.

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We also designed and milled the thick acrylic decorative glowing medallions to adorn the sides of the serpents.

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The white Serpent's body is made up of white plastic barrels that glow from within with LEDs. And the black Serpent has black metal barrels with scale designs plasma-cut cut into them, allowing the same LED light-show to glow ominously. We made many templates, jigs, and fixtures via our CNC machine to help support the largely hand-made processes Form & Reform's traditional blacksmithing demands.

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Each head is built on small electric car that is super fun and easy to drive, and all the barrels track so perfectly that you can weave in and around people and things in a most snake-like way. But of course, you must be wearing a winged aviator cap to operate these vehicles! As Kyrsten Mate so fashionably displays...

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Check out more photos on Flickr!

UPDATE: Now with video! Here's a nice movie showing how wonderfully they move.

See us at the AGC's BIMForum Conference in Phoenix, AZ later this week

We're honored to be included in this year's BIMForum conference in Phoenix, AZ! We'll be giving a talk about BIM-to-CNC fabrication on Thursday afternoon, January 14th, at 3:15 pm. We'll be focusing a lot on our in-house process we use to go from BIM to Digital Fabrication. We'll also be talking about the big changes that have been recently happening in that space. With a few fun things to show off, we've got high hopes that it will be a great talk!

In the past, CNC machines were used to solve one of two problems: either you needed to make a whole lot of something quickly, or you needed to make something that wasn't easy to make by hand. CNC machines were all about high production rates. And they had to be, for they were ungodly expensive, and the software and know-how even moreso. But now with CNC machines getting cheap enough, and the knowledge widespread enough, so that anyone can use them for almost anything they can think of, well, it really changes the whole game. And that's exactly what were going to be talking all about!

The BIMForum conference is held twice a year by the Associated General Contractors of America, an industry group akin to the AIA or AIGA but for builders. With a focus on emerging technology and it's use in the building industry, BIMForum looks to be wonderful conference of AGC people. People who are really making changes and making things work. So many of these technology-focused building industry talks can wander into the tall reeds of theory. So we're rather interested in talking to a bunch of people who are more about the day-to-day realities of getting things built! We're really looking forward to meeting everyone.

Hope to see you there!

Blender to CNC

Something that we get e-mails about from time to time is how we use Blender with our CNC machine. Everyone wants to know software, formats, etc. The missing link here is something called CAM software.

You don't go directly from Blender to the CNC controller; there is an in-between step where you generate toolpaths for the CNC machine to follow. Blender can't do this directly, and no one has made a plug-in (yet) for it, so you'll need to use a separate CAM package to do the job.

It goes like this. We model something up in Blender, sometimes from scratch and sometimes based upon an imported Revit model. Once we're happy with it, it gets exported to an .STL file. We then import that file into Vetric Aspire. Or, if it's a two or four-sided milling job, we use Vetric Cut3D (which is a nice cheap solution for 3D milling).

Toolpaths are generated by those tools, and saved out into jobs for the machine to run. Then we setup the material on our CNC machine, setup the machine, and then run that job. The machine goes to town, carving away, and then you've got your part!

We've yet to find a decent open source 3D CAM package. And honestly, the features and ease-of-use of the Vectric tools in combo with their cheap (for CAM software) prices really make it the way to go if you're at all serious about what you're making. While we understand that some out there want a 100% open source solution, we're using Blender because we like it and feel that it's got great features, not because it's free.

Anytime we get a question more than once via e-mail, we like to turn it into a blog post, so that we can share the answer with everyone!

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