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The Robots are Coming!

We read about it all the time. The article title might be something like: “The Robots are coming! The Robots are coming!” Usually coming as a mixture of technical wonder and a dose of foreboding.

We read that even entry-level jobs are in danger of being lost to automation: food kiosks, self-service checkout, automated freight delivery, self-driving taxis even!

It’s not difficult to imagine a dystopia where even entry-level jobs become automated–the ones most of us older folks used to climb the job ladder. Where high-paying jobs are scarce.

So here’s the question:

 “Who will prosper as robots do more of the work?”

Looking at history for clues, it’s not hard to see who advanced with each new age of innovation. The answer to that “Who will thrive … ?” question has been:

 “Those who came to understand the technology that was brewing.”

As a kid, it was exciting for me to learn how a car engine worked. I learned by sitting at the kitchen table and putting together a model of a Ford V8 engine, with my father sitting beside me and answering my questions. The model was called “The Visible V8.”

Through the clear plastic “engine block,” I could see how the pistons moved, how they turned the crankshaft, that turned the camshafts, that operated the valves, that brought in the fuel and removed the exhaust. The battery-powered “starter” motor caused all these to function together.

As teens and young adults, my generation pounced on every new innovation with the automobile (even though looking back, some of these were clearly marketing-driven and pretty lame). A knowledge of simple mechanics allowed an understanding of more complex mechanisms to develop. Fiddling with the car’s electrical parts was followed with a crude understanding of electronics. For some of us, electronics training helped develop that understanding further.

For years there’s been a convergence of the different skills needed to build machines to do useful things–and for these same machines to be re-programmed to do different useful things. The field was “robotics.” Another term, “mechatronics” has come into use. Boiled down to basics, mechatronics (or robotics) is the study and practical application of mechanics, electronics and programming.

Skills developed in these areas will provide a basis for the creative mind to invent–and to prosper.

The “Visible Robot” was created on the model of the “Visible V8.” Like the Visible V8, the components are all visible and easily understandable.

Beyond the simple movements of the model engine that was the Visible V8, the Visible Robot was designed–after serving as a hands-on teaching vehicle while being built–for a life as a useful programmable tool that could be put to use making parts; as a vehicle for the development of new tools and techniques; or even as a simple, inexpensive testbed for research.

Together, parent and child–or students in a small classroom or lab–can learn the basics of robotics. The resultant machine can then be used to make things, even to clone parts of itself!

Finix Systems — http://FinixSystems.com — offers 3D-printable robot designs and complementary product designs aimed at practical education in robotics and 3D-printing.

The designs come as downloadable files to be printed in plastic on a 3D-printer. These are files similar to the ones you would find on http://pinshape.com or at http://thingiverse.com. The designs come with full documentation with many photos and an illustrated bill-of-materials (BOM). All the documents are available for viewing on the above website. For those wishing to delve further into the design, the OpenSCAD source-code is available for all the parts. The source-code is well documented to aid the beginning programmer.

As Finix Systems products are downloadable files, not included are the metal shafting and rods, motors, leadscrews, leadnuts and fasteners. These (listed in the BOM with suggestions as to suppliers) would be purchased separately.

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