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New 3D Technology Makes Innovation Breakthrough and Puts Mind over Matter

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

New UNOSSC banner Dev Cha 2013

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY 

Revolutions in technology are placing more and more power into the hands of the individual, and 3D printing and fabrication machines are opening a whole new chapter.

These devices come in many forms, but they all do one thing: they can manufacture pretty well any three-dimensional object on the spot, from digital plans. These machines come in many sizes, from factory scale to smaller, home versions which are no bigger than personal computer printers, such as the well-known MakerBot Replicator 2 (makerbot.com).

3D printers introduce sophisticated precision manufacturing to the individual much in the same way the personal computer and the Internet have empowered people to make their own software, build websites and start online businesses.

A pioneering educational innovation in Chile is taking the technology even further, in a way that is truly mind-blowing. Thinker Thing (thinkerthing.com) promises to transform the way people interact with this new technology. “We have built a machine that will allow you to make real objects with your mind,” its website states.

And, it wants to do more: “We want to use our invention to light a fire of inspiration throughout the remote and often disadvantaged schools of South America and we can do this with your help.”

Thinker Thing allows the user to wear a headset and communicate through brain waves to the 3D printer. The printer then manufactures a three-dimensional model of the thoughts. These can be squiggly shapes or even, it is hoped, more sophisticated forms.

Thinker Thing’s Chilean Chief Technology Officer is George Laskowsky. Laskowsky has a games console engineering background and was a research assistant in charge of high-energy particle experiments.

The Chilean government is funding this experiment to help children to improve their creative skills. The idea is to use the technology to eliminate the technical side of creating objects and focus the effort on the creative thought process. Thinker Thing was selected from more than 1,400 applicants to participate in the prestigious global accelerator program, “Start Up Chile” (http://startupchile.org). Start-Up Chile is a program created by the Chilean government that seeks to attract early-stage high potential entrepreneurs to develop startups using Chile as a platform to go global, in line with the national goal of converting Chile into the innovation and entrepreneurship hub of Latin America.

Based in Santiago, Chile, Laskowsky is seeking support for further development on IndieGoGo (http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/children-creating-real-objects-with-their-mind), an international crowdfunding platform for projects.

The plan is to tour Thinker Thing all around Chile and use the science, art and engineering principles behind the invention to help very young children in remote rural regions to learn through understanding the project. Its creators also hope to take the exhibition – called the Monster Dreamer School Outreach Program and the Fantastical Mind Creatures of Chile Exhibition – on the road and show it in major global cities.

The children are being asked to imagine fantastical creatures that will then be made into 3D forms with the machine. The idea is to then sell these 3D creatures to supporters of the project to help fund the initiative. As well, these creatures will go on display in an exhibition to help educate visitors about Chile’s children and their communities.

To increase interest, exclusive photographic prints and limited edition figurines are available of the creatures the children create.

The prototype uses what is called an EmotivEPOC, basically a wireless neuroheadset collecting signals from the user’s brain. In operation, the software allows users to make 3D models with the power of thought which are then made into a plastic model using a MakerBot Industries Replicator.

This is experimental stuff and neurotechnology is in its early stages. It can detect simple emotions such as excitement or boredom and cognitive thoughts such as push and pull. Despite being in its early stages, the technology can evolve a 3D object over a number of steps by detecting the user’s emotional response to design changes.

Thinker Thing has been working alongside neuroscientists to understand the workings of the brain. Amazingly, in one experiment they were able to get a person to control the leg of a cockroach using their own thoughts. Called the Salt Shaker (http://www.thinkerthing.com/about-2/salt-shaker/), it is an experimental kit for young students and hobbyists that allows them to take control of a biological limb quickly and simply.

The 3D printing revolution is energizing for large and small-scale manufacturers alike. It means a business can now engage in precision manufacturing of products and spare parts quickly. It means it is possible to download from the Internet plans for new innovations and manufacture them within minutes. It also means communities off the mainstream supply line can make what they need and repair machinery without needing to wait weeks or months for items to be shipped from afar or spend vast sums on shipping costs.

The Fab Labs project based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has been at the forefront of pioneering and prototyping this technology, including running testing labs across the global South to prove the relevance of the technology to the world’s poorest communities.

As of 2012, these include Fab Lab Afghanistan (http://www.fablab.af/), in Chile the FabLab Santiago (www.designlab.uai/fablab), Fab Lab Egypt (www.fablab-egypt.com), in Colombia the FabLab Medellin (http://www.fablabcolombia.com), in Ghana the Takoradi Technical Institute (http://ttifab.wikispaces.com/How+to+Use+the+TTI+Fab+Lab+Wiki), in India at various locations, Indonesia’s HONFablab (http://honfablab.org), ARO FabLab Kenya West (http://www.fablab.co.ke), and in Peru, South Africa, Suriname and many more are in the works (http://fab.cba.mit.edu/about/labs/).

If Thinker Thing has its way, maybe people in the future will say “I think, therefore I print!”

Resources

1) Stratasys: The company manufactures 3D printers and materials that create prototypes and manufactured goods directly from 3D CAD files or other 3D content. Stratasys systems are used by manufacturers to create models and prototypes to aid in the new product design process. And they are becoming widely used for production of finished goods in low-volume manufacturing. Systems range from affordable desktop 3D printers to large production systems for direct digital manufacturing. Website: http://www.stratasys.com/

2) 3D Systems: 3D Systems is a leading provider of 3D content-to-print solutions including 3D printers, print materials and on-demand custom parts services for professionals and consumers alike. Website: http://www.3dsystems.com/

ExOne: With decades of manufacturing experience and significant investment in research and product development, ExOne has pioneered the evolution of nontraditional manufacturing. This investment has yielded a new generation of rapid production technology in the field of additive manufacturing as well as advanced micromachining processes. Website: http://www.exone.com/

FabCentral: This site supports a digital fabrication facility and global network of field fab labs managed by MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms. Website: http://fab.cba.mit.edu

Maker Shed: 3D Printing and Fabrication:  An outstanding resource for getting all you need to understand 3D printing and manufacturing, with 3D printers, supplies, Whether you want to print out physical objects or machine something from plastic, wood, or other materials, we have the tools and accessories you need. Website: http://www.makershed.com/3D_Printing_Fabrication_s/220.htm

EMachineShop: The first and leading machine shop designed from the start for the Internet, eMachineShop’s mission is to provide easy, convenient and low-cost fabrication of custom parts via the web. Website: emachineshop.com/

Published: August 2013

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.  

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© David South Consulting 2021

Categories
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China Looking to Lead on Robot Innovation

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

Since the 1950s, science fiction has been telling the world we will soon be living with robots. While robots have emerged, they have been mostly kept to heavy industry, where machines can perform dangerous, hot and unpleasant repetitive tasks to a high standard.

But China is pioneering the move to mainstream robots in more public spheres. And the country is promising big changes in the coming decade.

Robots, strange as it may seem, can play a key role in development and fighting poverty.

If used intelligently, the rise of robots and robotics – itself a consequence of huge technological advances in information technology, the Internet, nanotechnology,artificial intelligence, and mobile communications – can free workers from boring, difficult and dangerous jobs. This can ramp up the provision of public goods like cleaning services in urban areas, or remove the need to do back-breaking farming work.

Robotics also offers a new field of high-tech employment for countries in the global South who are producing far more educated engineering and science students than they can currently employ. These students can help build the new robot economy.

China is considered to be in the early stages of competing with robot pioneers such as Japan, Switzerland, Germany, Sweden and the United States. And China still has a low penetration of industrial robots per population. In 2011 estimates placed the number of industrial robots in China at 52,290 (International Federation of Robotics) (ifr.org).

In the years ahead, China confronts a double demographic problem. It has the world’s largest elderly population, who will need care, and it also has a shrinking number of young people available to work as a result of the country’s one-child policy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One-child_policy).

Robots can help solve these problems.

China started its robotics research in the 1970s and ramped it up from 1985. It has already made significant progress manufacturing domestic robots for cleaning. The Xiamen Lilin Electronics Co., Ltd. (http://cnlilin.en.made-inchina.

com/) makes vacuum cleaners that are small round robots smart enough to return to their recharging stations when low on power. Another firm, Jetta Company (http://www.jetta.com.hk/home.htm), has built and sells the iRobot Roomba vacuum cleaning and floor-washing robots (http://www.irobot.com/uk/store.aspx?camp=ppc:google:products_roomba:G_790612075_1846279957_iRobot%20roomba:roomba_brand&gclid=CMiezMiG8a4CFc4LtAodYE3MKw).

For the heavy duty stuff, there is Ningbo’s Dukemen Robot, sold with the slogan “man, technology, robot”. The company manufactures arm-like robots for heavy lifting and lifting in dangerous or uncomfortable environments (dukerobot.com/ks/robot-manufacturers/).

A company called Quick specializes in making soldering equipment for manufacturing electronic components and sells robots that can do this with high accuracy and speed (quick-global.com/9-new-soldering-robot-1.html).

Other robotic advances in China include a robot dolphin that swims through the water measuring its quality.

There are also robots in development to do housework and help people who need assistance in the home like the elderly and the disabled. These robots can monitor a person’s physical condition and provide psychological counselling and search for, and deliver, requested items. One example is called UNISROBO, and is based on the Japanese robot PaPeRo robot (http://www.nec.co.jp/products/robot/en/index.html).

Still other robots can perform surgical procedures or even play sport, like Zhejiang University’s ping pong-playing robot (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4BtHYHi7trA).

Even more ambitiously, China is developing robots to send to the moon.

The push to introduce robots into the workplace and wider society is receiving considerable attention in China.

The Taiwan-based technology company Foxconn – well-known for assembling products for the American company Apple, maker of the iPad and iPhone -has pledged to deploy a million robots in its Chinese factories in the coming years to improve efficiency.

Some are forecasting that if China starts building robots on the scale it has pledged, then the world’s population of manufacturing robots will grow tenfold in 10 years.

China is also broaching one of the trickiest aspects of robotics – getting robots to interact with humans.

The tricky bit in robotics is getting interaction with human beings right and to avoid the experience being intimidating or frightening. One sector that is already ahead in experimenting with this aspect of robots is the restaurant business. One robot being used in restaurants sits on a tricycle trolley laden with drinks. It cycles from table to table in endless rotation allowing customers to choose drinks when they like.

The first robot restaurant started a trial run in 2010 in Jinan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jinan), the capital of Shandong Province. The hot pot restaurant uses six robots to help with the service. The restaurant has also given itself the perfect name for this new approach: Continental Robot Experience Pavilion. Adorned with robot posters, the restaurant is 500 square metres in size and can seat 100 diners.

Diners at the Continental Robot Experience Pavilion are greeted by two ‘female’ “beauty robot receptionists” dressed in uniforms. Inside, the six robot waiters serve the customers. There are two to deliver drinks and two to serve the small tables and two to serve the big tables.

The robot comes to the table and takes the customers’ orders for food dishes and drinks. The robots, designed with sensors to stop them moving when they sense something or someone in front of them, are able to handle 21 tables and deal with the 100 customers at a single sitting.

The robots have proven so effective, the restaurant’s staff can stay focused on administration and providing assistance. The cooking is still done by human beings.

This trial run is designed to test the concept and the novelty of having robots attracting customers, the restaurant’s manager told the People’s Daily Online.

The plan is to increase the number of robots to 40 and also to have robots do cleaning and other tasks.

“They have a better service attitude than humans,” said Li Xiaomei, 35, who was visiting the restaurant for the first time. “Humans can be temperamental or impatient, but they don’t (the robots) feel tired, they just keep working and moving round and round the restaurant all night,” Li said to China Daily.

Resources

1) The Robot Report: It boasts compiling more than 1,400 robotics-related links and is about “Tracking the business of robotics”. Website: therobotreport.com

2) The Robot Shop: Bills itself as “The world’s leading source for professional robot technology” and sells online all the parts, kits, toys, tools and equipment to get any enthusiast or small and medium enterprise working with robotics quickly. Website: robotshop.com

3) Robot App Store: Sells ‘apps’ or software applications to expand the capabilities of robots. It also operates as a store for application developers to sell their robot apps to others. Also has information and resources on how to get started making robot apps and making money from making robot apps. Website: robotappstore.com

4) Roboearth: Funded by the European Union, RoboEarth is an online, open source network where robots can communicate with each other and share information and “learn from each other about their behaviour and their environment. Bringing a new meaning to the phrase “experience is the best teacher”, the goal of RoboEarth is to allow robotic systems to benefit from the experience of other robots, paving the way for rapid advances in machine cognition and behaviour, and ultimately, for more subtle and sophisticated human-machine interaction. Website: roboearth.org

5) Robotland: A blog writing about the “visions, ideas, innovations, awards, trends and reports from leading robotics research and development places in the world”. Website: http://robotland.blogspot.co.uk/

6) China Hi-Tech Fair: Running from 16-21 November 2012, the Fair is a great way to see the latest developments in robotics in China. Website: chtf.com/english/

7) Singularity Hub: A cornucopia of robotic resources and news on “science, technology and the future of mankind”. Website: http://singularityhub.com/

Cited in Studies in Intelligence, Autonomous Systems in the Intelligence Community: Many Possibilities and Challenges, Vol. 59, No.1 (Extracts, March 2015).

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

Published: March 2012

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.  

Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 59, No.1 (Unclassified articles from March 2015).
Autonomous Systems in the Intelligence Community: Many Possibilities and Challenges by Jenny R. Holzer, PhD, and Franklin L. Moses, PhD in Studies in Intelligence Vol 59, No. 1 (Extracts, March 2015).
Autonomous Systems in the Intelligence Community: Many Possibilities and Challenges by Jenny R. Holzer, PhD, and Franklin L. Moses, PhD in Studies in Intelligence Vol 59, No. 1 (Extracts, March 2015).

More China stories:

Better by Design in China

China Pushing Frontiers of Medical Research

China Sets Sights on Dominating Global Smartphone Market

China’s Outsourced Airliner Development Model

Creating Green Fashion in China

Designed in China to Rival ‘Made in China’

Rammed-Earth Houses: China Shows how to Improve and Respect Traditional Homes

Virtual Supermarket Shopping Takes off in China

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This work is licensed under a
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ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2021