Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Robot Revolution Is Here, and Growing

Robots already surround us, and they’re about to do much more than work on assembly lines and pick up dust bunnies.
If you have been following technology news, you might be wondering if robots are about to take over our lives. Google in particular has made a slew of robotics acquisitions: the company bought eight robotics companies in the second half of last year, including Boston Dynamics, a maker of legged robots that can balance well enough to climb over obstacles and run, and it recently agreed to buy drone maker Titan Aerospace, whose robotic aircraft could help bring the Internet to remote parts of the world.
What does it all mean? At the least, companies like Google are anticipating business trends. These companies know that robotics is important, maybe even revolutionary. But if a revolution is coming to the consumer market, what will it look like? And why would it happen now?
If you’re waiting for an invasion of walking, talking, anthropomorphic robots, the coming changes will surprise you. In fact, many have already occurred. Robots are already an essential part of modern civilization, but they have mainly performed static, repetitive tasks (dispensing cash as ATMs, for example). Now, thanks to trends including the plunging prices of certain technology components, robots will soon be able to tackle an array of more complex, varied tasks with greater degrees of autonomy and intelligence.
The true barrier in this market has been the cost of buying and prototyping the key hardware components—components that allow machines to gather data and interact with the world around them. And now, for the first time, these components can be tested and produced at a price consumers can afford. We might see a robot that feeds your pet when you’re away from home, or a robot consisting of a punching bag with hands that helps you train at boxing.
But let’s return to the ATM. Imagine that it could learn to walk around a festival or event and focus on people who looked as though they were interested in making a purchase. Technological advances of the last few years have made it economically feasible to explore ideas like this. Because of the boom in smartphone production, a small camera can cost as little as $20, making it easier and cheaper for machines to read visual data from the world around them. Other components—such as processors and sensors—have also become exponentially cheaper in the last few years (again, largely thanks to smartphone production). There are still large and exciting challenges to overcome (such as creating the software to run such a “smart” ATM), but the technology and the business models already exist.
The Roomba is one of the few success stories in the market for home robotics, and it’s a good example of how a task can be automated with the right combination of technology and cheaper components (such as motors and sensors). And the market for vacuums alone is huge: Transparency Market Research estimated it at $11 billion in 2012 and projected an increase to $14.6 billion by 2018, with robotic vacuum sales rising faster than others.
There’s plenty of room for improvement in this niche market as well. Robotic vacuums like the Roomba must learn to navigate obstacles more skillfully, clean vertical surfaces, reach high places, and receive feedback and instructions by phone. Even more advances may soon be possible; perhaps in the future, the robot will be able to split apart into smaller robots in order to clean cracks and hard-to-reach places.
The smartphone and PC revolutions have given us valuable precedents for studying this market. Once we can make useful devices affordable enough, an entire industry of thinkers, engineers, and inventors will spring up to address the rising demand. In fact, we’ll probably see an app store for robot hardware as well.

Indeed, trying to predict where the robotics industry is headed feels like holding your first iPhone in 2007 and imagining how it would become part of our lives—it’s exciting to ponder what the future holds, but impossible to know. When it introduced the first iPhone, Apple had created an extraordinary piece of technology. But more important, it had produced an affordable product. We can now do the same with robots, and the possible applications are endless. By Dmitry Grishin (technologyreview.com)

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

World’s First 3D Printed Car Took Years to Design, But Only 44 Hours to Print

One day, in the not-too-distant future, you’ll be able to walk into a car dealership, choose a design — including the number of seats — and have a 3D printed car by the end of the day.
This is Jay Rogers’ vision. Rogers is the CEO of Local Motors, the company that just built the world's first 3D printed car known as the Strati. The electric, pint-sized two-seater was officially unveiled last week at the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) in Chicago, Illinois.
“Telsa made the electric drive train famous, we’re changing the whole car,” Rogers told Mashable, clearly still relishing his community-based design and his company’s moment in the 3D manufacturing sun.
According to Ford Motors, most cars have somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 parts. The Strati has just 49, including its 3D printed body (the largest part), plus more traditional components like the motor, wheels, seats and windshield. While many 3D printed car models exist, there haven't been any other drivable ones that we could find.
The original design for Strati, which means “layers” in Italian, did not bubble up directly from Local Motors. Rather, the company — similar to the inventions company Quirky — encourages members to share vehicle design ideas, which the community then works to perfect and productize. The finished products are then sold online and in retail stores by Local Motors.
Local Motors launched a project 18 months ago that sought to simplify the car design and manufacturing process through Direct Digital Manufacturing. When it put out the call for workable 3D printed car designs, it received more than 200 submissions, ultimately choosing a design by Michele Anoe, who is based in Italy.
Rogers said Anoe’s design stood out because it fit perfectly with Local Motors’ desired production technique, combining 3D printing and a subtractive machining.
Yet even with the design in hand, Local Motors spent the better part of a year finding a company that could print the first car. The eventual production partner, Oak Ridge Labs, found a company with the base of a large laser printer, which they retrofitted with a 3D extruder. The second half of the 3D production process took place in a separate Cincinnati manufacturing routing machine, which refined the overall look of the car.
Printing the car took roughly 44 hours, and milling it to perfection took another full day. Local Motors then built the Strati over the course of four days at the IMTS.
“We probably could have done it in two days or less,” Rogers said — but they stretched it out for the show.
Printed in carbon fiber reinforced thermoplastic or ABS, the finished Strati can drive at speeds up to 40 mph and can travel 120 miles on a single charge. It’s fine for a neighborhood jaunt, but is not yet allowed on highways. Rogers said there are plans to test the car extensively before selling it to customers or putting it on the freeway.
Auto manufacturers like Ford have been using 3D printing techniques for decades, but according to a company spokesperson, currently only uses the process for prototyping. (So far, there haven't been any 3D printed parts in Ford vehicles.) Thus, the concept of building a vehicle almost entirely through the 3D printing process is likely intriguing to traditional car makers like Ford.
Although the Strati is just as expensive as a full-sized sedan, Rogers does not envision it as a luxury item. Instead, he believes it will be an affordable and highly customizable option that could be widely available by 2016 for between $18,000 and $34,000.
"It will be positioned like a car for the masses, or many different cars for the masses,” Rogers said. By Lance Ulanoff (mashable.com)
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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Tesla’s Massive Nevada Factory Will Need Massive Results to Pay Off

Tesla’s gigafactory plan depends on selling 10 times more cars by 2020 than it does today.
Tesla’s much publicized “gigafactory”—to be built in Nevada, the company announced on Thursday—is a gamble that demand for electric vehicles will increase rapidly in coming years. In fact, for the factory to truly pay off and make batteries substantially cheaper, as Tesla hopes, the company will have to sell 10 times more cars each year than it currently does.
Once completed, Tesla’s factory will be able to produce more lithium-ion batteries than all the world’s existing lithium-ion factories combined—enough to power 500,000 vehicles each year. It will also produce many subcomponents on site, instead of importing them from elsewhere.
Tesla is betting that such economies of scale and savings on transportation costs will bring down the cost of batteries by a third, a crucial step toward its goal of selling an electric car with a range of 200 miles that costs $30,000 to $35,000. The company’s Model S, which costs between about $70,000 and $115,000, can travel 265 miles on a charge. Most existing electric cars have a range of only about 100 miles on a charge.
Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk is therefore gambling that his cars will be far more popular than any electric cars to date. It’s a risky bet, with one industry analyst firm, Lux Research, predicting that Tesla will sell 240,000 cars a year by 2020, when the factory is to be finished—or less than half as many as the factory is designed to build batteries for.
Tesla had been considering several other states for its gigafactory, including California and Texas, as it sought government incentives to help it build the big factory. To land the factory, Nevada agreed to provide Tesla significant financial incentives over the next few decades. Tesla says the factory will be a “net zero energy” building, although it’s not clear exactly how the company is doing this accounting; such buildings typically generate as much energy as they consume.
The battery typically accounts for less than a quarter of the cost of a Model S, which means that even if Tesla can reduce the cost of battery manufacturing by 30 percent, it will need to come up with cheaper ways to make other components in order to make an affordable 200-mile-range electric car. By Kevin Bullis (technologyreview.com)
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