Peter Schmitt Thesis Defense

April 26, 2011


MIT Media Lab, E14-633


The digital revolution has fundamentally changed our lives by giving us new ways to express ourselves through digital media. For example, accessible multimedia content-creation tools allow people to instantiate their ideas and share them easily. However, most of these outcomes only exist on-screen and online. Despite the growing accessibility of digital design and fabrication tools, the physical world and everyday objects surrounding us have been largely excluded from a parallel explosion of possibilities to express ourselves. Increasingly, web-based services allow professional and non-professional audiences to access computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) tools such as 3D-printing and laser-cutting. Nonetheless, there are few (if any) design tools and methods for creating complex mechanical assemblies that take full advantage of CAM systems. Creating unique mechatronic artifacts or "Original Machines" requires more specific and sophisticated design tools than exist today. "Object-Oriented Mechatronics" is a parametric design approach that connects knowledge about mechanical assemblies and electronics with the requirements of digital manufacturing processes. Parametric instances like gears, bearings, and servos are made available as objects within a CAD environment which can then be implemented into specific projects. The approach addresses the missing link between accessible rapid-manufacturing services and currently available design tools, thereby creating new opportunities for self-expression through mechatronic objects and machines.
The dissertation matches mechanical components and assemblies with rapid manufacturing methods by exploring transferability of conventional manufacturing techniques to appropriate rapid manufacturing tools. Schmitt rebuilds various gearing and bearing principles like four-contact point bearings, cross-roller bearings, spur and helical gears, planetary gears, and cycloidal and harmonic gear reducers using the laser cutter, the CNC-mill, and the 3D-printer. These explorations lead to more complex assemblies such as the PlywoodServo, 3DprintedClock, and 3-DoF (Degree of Freedom) Head. The lessons from these explorations are summarized in a detailed “cookbook” of novel mechatronic assemblies enabled by new fabrication tools. Furthermore, Schmitt uses the results to develop a CAD tool that brings together several existing software packages and plug-ins including Rhino, Grasshopper, and the Firefly experiments for Arduino, which will allow animation, fabrication and control of original machines. The tool is an example of an object-oriented design approach to mechatronic assemblies. A user calls a DoF (Degree of Freedom) object (parametric servo) with specific parameters like gearing and bearing types, motor options, and control and communication capabilities. The DoF object then creates the corresponding geometry which can be connected and integrated with other actuators and forms. A group of roboticists and designers participated in a workshop to test the tool and make proposals for original machines using the tool.
The dissertation has contributions on multiple levels. First, the actuator assembly examples and parametric design tool present a body of novel work that illustrates the benefits of going beyond off-the-shelf actuator assemblies and kit-of-parts for robotic objects. Second, this tool and the accompanying examples enable the design of more original machines with custom actuator assemblies using the latest digital fabrication tools. Finally, these explorations illustrate how new CAD/CAM tools can facilitate an exchange between more design-oriented users and more engineering-oriented users.

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