Robot Army : Final Stretch

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe… who had so many deltas she didn’t know what to do. So she put them in boxes and shipped them away, to twelve different countries so they could revolt and take over the world one day… hehe.

We’ve shipped about 150 kits at this point. The poor printer has been running at a minimum of ten hours ever single day for the past six months and I’m starting to feel like I should buy it a drink or something.

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I estimate we should be sending the last troops out to their perspective families within the next 2-3 weeks. That means this whole Kickstarter process from the brainstorming of the campaign all the way to the end has taken one whole year: November to November ( ! ).

The eBook : The final thing I need to do once all is said and done, is document my story. I’ll get to noodle up tight with my plush delta, Stitchie, and regurgitate all that we’ve gathered from this growing experience in hind sight. I have a lot to say about it, and hopefully others out there in the hardware world will find my advice useful… or whimsical.

The Coastal Campaign : So, once Mark and I finally start building the army, we need to come up with a way to travel with all 100 or so of them like one big happy family. Our plans for the winter may involve a road trip up the coast to all the cities which have hackerspaces so we can introduce the little ones to the world.

What’s Next? We will continue to sell the Starter Kit on our site as well as others potentially, although a post-KS price change is to be expected.

On a few occasions Mark and I have stolen away and worked on our next project amidst all this shipping. We have a lot of ideas swimming around, but there is still a lot to get done to the tune of building out that army first… right? What do 1000 servos sound like?? We’ll soon know!

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Here are some fun facts :

For the Kickstarter we have printed…

1400+ yellow arms

700+ paddles

300 end effectors

and 1500 brackets

we’ve burned through 25ish rolls of filament from six different suppliers (depleting the neon yellow stock of a few)

I have soldered around…

6900+ male pin headers (Mark has soldered more)

and placed around 1200 SMT parts

We’ve used 3 industrial-sized rolls of quarter-inch bubble-wrap for packing

and have shipped kits to 16 different countries!

The place where the most robots are going to is… the bay area. Take good care of our kids, Silicon Valley.

Robot Army : Shipping at Last

Much to my dismay… I woke up last week to find that it was September. While I struggle to remember where the summer went, I think I’ll make myself a cup of chai and recap whats been going on in the past month or so.

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The most exciting thing to take place was our dry run at SYN Shop. We invited a small number of people who preordered kits back in February to be the first to pick up their newly adopted robots in exchange for testing out our instructions. Everything went smoothy, however I’m still sitting here editing the instructions… and I’m tired of looking at them. ::shakes fist:: As much as I thought I had boiled down the steps… I need to expand several of them out even more to make absolute sure that people can’t skip or misread them.

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It’s taxing >.< I definitely need to do a little research next time before I dive into producing a visual guide to see if there is a recommended method for capturing images at consistent perspective views. I ended up having a massive CAD document where all of the steps are positioned with a zillion copies of all the molded parts… which works, but there is so much now that it’s confusing and difficult to sort through.

The last thing to finish off before we began boxing things was the software (of course). We figure a large percentage of the people who bought our kit will never bother to update or reflash the code on the brain, so we want to make sure it’s exceptional. For the entertainment of those who will only ever run their delta in auto mode, each DIP switch setting will contain a different emotion… happy, sad, caffeinated, and kill (yes, “kill” is an emotion if you’re a robot). Programming a delta robot to emote is a huge challenge though, especially when you only have three degrees of motion to work with. Mark and I have been mulling over the code with “Testie” or faithful test delta, for a few hours every day trying to figure out the nuance of each; a matter of tailoring subtlety.

We finalized the code on Saturday… and by the end of yesterday had the first 50 boards burnt, bagged, and added to the boxes with all the other things.

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So yeah… the master bedroom has been turned into our mailroom (it is under renovation anyhow). All of the individual assets come together here and are getting sealed up with shipping tape at last!!!

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After we push out the first 50 kits, it’s a matter of rinsing and repeating the boxing processes four more times…! Not too bad!

The one thing that might slow us down a little (because there is always something) is that Mark has been called to work every day this week due to some major changes taking place in areas where he’s needed. This leaves me alone finishing off the last of it all : shipping labels, bubble wrapping, and giving the website a good makeover.

I can’t possibly express in writing how excited I am to finally be sending the kids out into the world. I’ve been suffering from this weird form of anxiety lately… which stems from having all this creative energy, but forcing myself not to focus it on anything because of all the work we’ve needed to do… it’s like constipation. I am really glad that we did the Kickstarter, but man will it be nice to have my free time back to develop other projects.

Lesson learned : Kickstarter is a great way to gain exposure and raise money to bring an idea into the world… BUT, however long you believe its going to take to reach fulfillment (even if you really REALLY plan) expect for it to take twice as long. The last 10% turns out being the last 90% of it all… you just don’t know it yet. Things that you write off in your mind as a non-issue expand out into several bullet points worth of extra things to manage or take care of. Don’t think for a moment that “All we have to do is…” or “It won’t take that long to…” – Those things require attention and energy too. It’s all a gigantic sacrifice, as fulfillment will prevent you from perusing other ventures. As a creative person with a mind going a zillion miles an hour – you will spin out… like me! ::spins::

That is my wisdom to pass on. Again, SO glad I have done it – but SO happy for it to be nearly over.

DefCon 22

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Picture taken by Aakin!

Sunday evening I collapsed on the couch with a nice big glass of red wine after having unloaded the very last of our stuff back into the house… thankful that I’m alive, in one piece, and that nothing critical went wrong this weekend. I have more awesome memories for the grey squishy hard drive. Here are the highlights on a few of my experiences :

Our Kids’ Second Big Recital >.<

DELTAS! They were there! This being our second time attending the con, we wanted to participate by bringing our own taste to the medicine. Friday night during the event of random fun and mischief, we had a nice dark sliver of space to set up all of our babies in. The best part being that we didn’t have any rules or restrictions for the space we were showing in like at Maker Faire. We could pretty much do anything we wanted; our own cooler filled with beer was present, our own speakers with music were set up, and we turned the back wall into a looming place of worship for those of us who accept robots into our hearts as personal overlords and saviors. ❤

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However, setup left a bad taste in my mouth. We had issues during load-in involving some things we were led to believe would be provided in the room yet weren’t. This in itself wasn’t the problem; the resistance we encountered while trying to fix it was.  A few of the Goons seemed to get off on our dilemma, being purposely withholding instead of doing what they could to help, and then became pissy and annoyed with us once we resorted to taking matters in our own hands to get what we needed. If the people running Defcon expect others to go out of their way to set up art and events at their convention with nothing to show for the effort, the very least they can be is accommodating and maybe a little gracious. The Defcon staff we encountered were all stressed out and moody which might have been due to the lack of organization, or it could stand that in an economy where everyone is being paid with perceived status rather than money, undies will get knotted up… and egos will inflate. =/

Anyhow, once we were ready to go- dismay aside, everything went fucking awesome. We received an excellent response and got great feedback from fellow hardware hackers. It was the most rewarding experience to see people interact and dance around with the robots while radiating that megalomaniacal hype we’re aiming to bring out of people. I had many interesting, insightful conversations with other techie avant-garde, as well as with those of the goons who weren’t ten feet up their own asses. =]

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At the end of the night Mark and I got to deconstruct our little ones alone in private. The hallways were silent, dark, and devoid of life, which was surreal in contrast to how congested they were at every other time. In our own zen we packed up the show, unloading at Mark’s place by 4:30 Saturday morning. I slept so hard I forgot where I was when I woke the next day back at the hotel.

Darknet was a huge success!

photo taken by hackerphotos.com

Photo taken by hackerphotos.com

Everyone was working until the final hour (minute) on every facet of this event to make sure it was loaded with kickass once Defcon began on Thursday. Of course, Smitty’s highly involved live RPG was all the rage this year. Holly shit. By the time I got down to the HHV in the morning, the DarkNet badge kits were sold out! I heard that on Saturday there were 600+ people in line to fight over the remaining 80!

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The few they had left were auctioned off before Crash and Compile for over a hundred dollars a piece! I am SO PROUD of the whole team for the amount of effort they poured into coordinating things this year. It was no easy task, so I’m glad that the Defcon lords recognized this by making Darknet a black badge event this year!

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We raised over four-thousand dollars for the EFF… and for me, the great part is knowing that we did it in style 😉 Darknet shirts happen to be sexy. Just saying. Virtual high-five team!

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Fellow Makers Rock Defcon with their Laser Robots!

Mark and I met two really cool people at Maker Faire this year, Kathryn and Alvaro. This tech savvy duo of robot wielding awesomeness had a laser shooting gallery in San Mateo. Being their area of expertise, they brought an amped up laser turret with them this year to compete in the DefCon Bots challenge. The goal was basically to create a robot that could scan and find blue balls (teehee!!) moving through a depth of dark space and then aim a laser to shoot at them. That’s no easy task! We came to cheer them on this Saturday and were happy to catch their big win! They were up late making last-minute improvements on their laser baby, but it paid off in the end… =] Great work guys!!!

The best badge is the one you make yourself.

In a pop-up culture of status dictated by the thing hanging around your neck, there is much talk of badges at Defcon. Black badges, human badges, modding, decoding, hacking, and alas… making your own, which a few people did. As for us, Mark and I created a board out of the key I designed for the Darknet propaganda. It’s a nice little memento for this year which we proudly bared as board designers. Purple FTW!

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We met someone who made an “Impostor” badge through OSH Park, which was the most snarky and creative rendition of the Defcon 22 badge at the entire con as far as I’m concerned :

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All of the text negated everything on the original, for example saying “light arc” instead of “dark tangent” on the back, and “found” instead of “1o57”. Tehe. In love. The UV SMT LEDs were a nice touch too.

Then there is sharpie and gaff tape :

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Because the better things in life are neon yellow.

Crash and Compile

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Glitter. What? Nah… it wasn’t me. =]

So I didn’t wear a big penis this year. To change it up a little, my strategy was to annoy and systematically emasculate all of the competitors with dolls. I built a “Barbie bandolier” which held my many personas through which I communicated during the event. This got easier to do the more hopping drunk I became. – I was sure to make a doll-sized strap on as a throwback :

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Though I spent a lot of time trying to derail team Frink, the defending champions, I poured twice as much effort into bothering the team who won this year… Sprechen Sie Dick Picks. No one could get these dudes to make eye contact with them. They had the purpose of a bullet train and though they did a good job of kicking everyone’s ass, I think they missed one other very important aspect of the whole event : by the end it should feel like a circus on stage… and everyone seemed more sober than I remember last year (but that might just be because I was more drunk than the rest). Congrats to all of you for competing! (and for putting up with our shenanigans)

Jeff and his crew did a fantastic job of preparing for the event again (Jeff is a rock star, as he also designed the board in the Darknet kit again this year in addition to preparing for the contest). Between the contest holders and the teams programming, we polished off three kegs of beer over four hours. It all went by so very fast. Here is the sexy trophy he made this year, a shiny head-sized D12 :

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SYN Shop Teaches Soldering to the World

I’m happy to say that our local Hackerspace, SYN Shop, had a presence in the hardware hacking village this year! Brain along with several other volunteers manned the tables of tight and person soldering stations, happy to show those who had picked up a kit in the vendor area how to melt lead like a pro.

When Everything is Said and Done

The child-like wonder of falling down the rabbit hole was gone, but I felt like I found my own niche in the big picture this year. I’m proud of all my friends and the work they put forth to make the event what it was. =] Time to get back to work. We’ve got robots to ship and the rest of the world to take over.

This is another notch in our belt… or shiny thing on our wall. It’s all about enjoying the journey!

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Robot Army : Las Vegas Mini Maker Faire

I started composing an update a week ago… and never finished it. Now Mini Maker Faire is over. Oh well.

In any case… back then everything felt like it was falling apart. I wrote venting about how terrified, annoyed and disappointed I was that things wouldn’t just go the way they were suppose to. As we encountered one complication after another, each bump yielded an even better solution than what we were originally planning.

Long story short, all is going great again. Better in fact. We had an excellent Mini Maker Faire on Saturday. All of our friends and local backers came to see our kids perform and talk to us about our maniacal future schemes. Though we brought a soldering station and work lamp just in case an all systems failure occurred… nothing went wrong. Everything just worked…. the whole time (aside from the stupid Processing app crashing every now and then).

I could break it down in words and give you a play by play, but we decided to film it instead. So here’s a video to sum it all up :

Now that that’s over, time to start getting things ready for the real deal in San Mateo next month. We had originally planned on bringing 60 deltas with us to display (six pallets worth), but after experiencing the set up for just one with all the work it took to maintain them… Mark and I decided to lower that number to 30. This amount will fit in his Kia! So no mess with trailers and the like! We can’t wait! =]

Oh yeah… we ordered ALL of our servo motors today… for the kits and our installation. That’s 1000 servos….. =O Also, the largest purchase I’ve ever made in my life. Fun times. It’s happening!! The yellow onslaught is coming!

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Robot Army : From Tupperware to 3D Printing

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When I moved back home from art school in Chicago, one of the biggest drags was no longer having access to the beefy machine shop that was down the street from my apartment. I went from playing with a room-sized lathe and mill to having little more than a $20 soldering iron and dremel at my disposal. It seemed my metal-cutting days were going to end as soon as they started… well enough, this didn’t stop me from making the things I wanted to. I just had to use plastic now instead. Luckily for me, plastic was in abundance at my parent’s house. My mom hordes take-out containers and tupperware, so I had a bottomless stash to carve up.

Still pursuing my vision of creating the field of robotic flowers, I was trying to refine the design of my ‘steam’ into something a bit more controllable. At some point I ran across a video of a small delta robot someone had made on the internet. As I watched it bob up and down in that special twitchy, impatient way… I fell in love. From that moment on I became obsessed with building my own!

Long story short… Everything became a potential shape. I-beams. They’re everywhere :

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I used a lot of crappy plastic hangers. They made great paddles to connect onto the servo horn like you see below :

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In the beginning, mechanical joints mystified me. I didn’t quite understand what was going on with how a delta robot moved, so this prevented me from being particularly inventive with what I used to connect all the piece together. I read on a forum someplace that you could use 4-40 swivel ball links, which you can get from a hobby store… so I bought myself a set to try out. The thing is, they work great but they cost way more than any piece of plastic should (like… $18.00 for 12 of them. Just enough for one robot). ALSO, they require tiny spacers on either side of the ball. This helps give the rod a breadth of motion without smacking into the plastic piece its rotating in. The sucky part is that the pack of 12 joints form the hobby store only comes with half the number you’ll need (for a delta you need one on each side). The links are the pieces at the end of these 4-40 rods :

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In order to make a whole field worth like I was planning, I’d need to find a cheaper alternative that was less hardware dependent. For now though, these worked. I attached my paddles made of hanger bits to these arms :

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The next step was figuring out how to mount the delta robot. I realized that the servo motors would have to be elevated so that the paddles could swing below the angle of the table top. I didn’t have anything fancy to use at the time, so I took a pasta togo box from the cupboard and cut into it with my dremel to get some nice clearance slots :

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The next thing to figure out was how on earth I was going to mount the actual motors onto my base. A normal person would have used L-brackets of some sort, so I did precisely that… except again, mine were made from strips of plastic cut from togo boxes. >.<

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As you’ve guessed… the end effector was also eventually made from cut pieces of plastic. My first working prototype was practically a togo box with motors :

This was a great feat making my first functioning delta robot. I was proud of its frumpiness because though it wasn’t mechanically solid like a robot made of metal, it still worked. Of course, I wasn’t going to make a whole field of delta robots out of togo containers (although I probably could have because my mom surely had enough to do so). The next step was to shrink the design and refine the method so it could be repeated with ease.

My next prototype was still made of plastic, but I got classy and went to the Container Store and invested in some nice cylindrical boxes. These would become the new bases for my robots :

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I repeated the same steps, cutting the clearance slots for the paddles and making small L-brackets to mount the motors to the base. The base the motors were connects to was actually the lid of the container so you could remove it and use the bottom part as an enclosure for the board running it (clever!) :

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I had aspirations of building three of this particular prototype… to see if they could all be networked together and potentially all run at once :

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The two-dollar micro servos I bought from some nondescript hobby store (imported from China) were terrible quality. Though my second prototype worked, it moved like it had Parkinson’s disease. =/

I wasn’t really happy with this… but two dollars a motor was all I could afford at the time (I was still living at home with the folks). Eager to try again when I could invest in some more quality materials… I started rethinking the entire design.

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For the rest of the summer I meditated on what I had learned. The little blue servos from China stripped in a matter of days while I was testing out code… So I was left with nothing more than a delta shell.

One extremely fateful day I met the people of SYN Shop at an art faire downtown. The hackerspace was just a glimmer in someone’s eye at the time and was run out of the garage of the man who is now my collaborator (Mark Koch). They invited me to stop by some time and show off whatever I was working on. Eesh. Even though I was embarrassed and apprehensive, I brought the mangled corpse of my second delta prototype to show to people. In spite of its appearance, my gimpy child got a lot of attention for the mere fact that I managed to pull off making a delta robot from garbage. Mark had always wanted to build his own pick and place machine, so seeing my creation urged him to get off his butt and make one of his own.

This is when the discovery of 3D printing changed my life. Mark suggested that I design my delta’s parts in CAD and of all things…print them. I was familiar with 3D printers, however the one my art school had was huge and they charged an insulting amount just to produce tiny things with it. Up until then, I had no clue that desktop 3D printers even existed, so my mind was blown when I saw his Replicator for the first time. The usefulness of this tool was revolutionary. I could continue building my robots in plastic like I had been, but I wouldn’t have to machine my parts as if they were metal. How easy!

I spent the rest of the year learning Sketchup. This is a free piece of software that I highly recommend to beginners. It isn’t as powerful as Maya or Solidworks, but its intuitive so you can start making things with it immediately. You basically draw 2D shapes like you would in Illustrator and then extrude them upward to make basic geometrical objects. You can edit things from there of course. If you’re looking to design mechanical parts, this tool is a wet dream, but be patient because it has it’s irritating quirks and limitations.

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One day during CES in 2013, Mark came onto something rather brilliant while we were discussing our designs over margaritas. The solution for those expensive and convoluted swivel ball links (that I had been stuck using) was to use some sort of U-joint that could compress onto ball bearings and twist freely in all directions. The idea was simple and genius :

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This was an important quality because now we could completely divorced ourselves from having to source out any hobby parts. This means aside from some hardware, we no longer had to buy link joints, or cut rod in order to make the robot work. Everything was designed in CAD. Everything was 3D printed. My cost went down significantly, and at last I had the perfect model which I could realistically expect to afford building in mass… and all I had to do was hit ‘print’.

Once we mastered this technicality, it was a matter of implementing it throughout our designs. My personal delta robot went through many…….. many revisions before it became the thing it is now :

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It was at some point last spring that our robots reached their pinnacle. My first complete and polished delta made from 3D printed parts was named Jeden (after the Polish word for one), and Mark’s hanging delta robot was named Amber (after an inside joke Mark and I had at the time). This was the revision of Jeden right before I got my neon yellow filament in the mail :

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We had been working so hard that our collaboration was getting noticed by the others in our community and our friends from SYN Shop decided to interview us about our ‘rivalry’ for their first podcast :

We hadn’t really thought of one another as collaborators (or rivals for that matter) until that point in time. Once it was brought to our attention however we took off like rockets loaded with beer and nitrous. We’ve been working together ever since and within a year brought a delta robot kit to market… which is the thing I’m promoting so heavily right now on Kickstarter.

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This campaign is not only getting us our funding to build that elusive art installation I’ve been wanting to create, it’s also the introduction of our new company to the maker community. Mark and I don’t expect this will be our last kit. We’re sort of hooked on this process now and already have plans for what’s next. We are Robot Army LLC and it looks like we’re here to stay =]

It’s been a fantastic journey. I’m getting to strike a couple of goals off my bucket list. I started this blog two years ago to prove to the world (and myself) that anyone with a little bit of drive and passion can bring something from their dreams into reality… even coming from a position where you lack experience or expertise. There is a wealth of open knowledge and support out there to be drawn upon. If you choose to use it, anything is possible.

Robot Army : Push Notification Dance

How awesome would it be if you had an adorable little robot bob up and down to let you know when you receive a tweet, message, or get an update on a feed? SUPER AWESOME!  In order to provide a more utilitarian use for our delta robots, we’ve mocked up some example code that scans JSON packets from the internet in order to trigger a response of some sort.

For our first project related update Mark wrote code that causes a delta to dance around every time we receive a new backer for our Kickstarter (our robots should be as happy about that as we are). We let this application run all day on Tuesday to test the reliability of the code, however by doing this we apparently opened a rift of unfortunate irony… and didn’t receive a single backer ALL DAY long. This resulted in one very sad stationary robot and two very discouraged drunk engineers.

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The good news is that in spite of our brief plateau, the code DOES work… and our test robot is the first one to know when we receive new support from the world.

Over at SYN Shop… our window display yet again underwent some unexpected trouble. After replacing the outdated arms on our three torture test robots, we left them for the weekend to… well, be tortured. They were working fine until someone from the hackerspace emailed us Monday with news that they were once again in piles. ::sigh:: When I stopped in that night I was pleased to find that this round of failure was not due to their joints, rather the new servo brackets split in half (odd). It turns out these new brackets were a hair too thin, and the PLA does get a little dry over time. The dryness caused the new tighter joints to bind up, which put strain on the brackets and over time cracked them.

Once more I scooped my children into my arms and drove them home to be tuned up by daddy. He figures the solution is… more lubricant (of course).  This is what a torture test is all about though, so I’m glad we’re getting the chance to iron out these bugs.

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Anyhow, over the past two weeks since the launch we’ve gotten many requests for more detailed information about our machine. If anyone is curious, here are some specifics about the yellow beast :

What are the robot’s dimensions?  The delta robot is approximately 20cm x 20cm wide, and 20cm tall when at rest (a little less than 8” x 8” x 8”).

What is the end effector’s range of motion?  The end effector can reach a diameter of approximately 28cm (about 11”) and can travel up and down on its z-axis 13cm-15cm (about 6”).

How much weight can the robot hold? The robot is able to lift around 12oz (a can of soda) with its end effector.

How fast can the end effector move? Running at full speed, we were able to clock our delta moving approximately 150mm/sec on its z-axis (up and down), and 250mm/sec on its x-y axis.

Having done this, I felt inspired and drew this a few days ago :

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Now that we’re at the halfway point of our campaign… Mark and I are starting to get hungry. We keep reworking our marketing strategy every couple of days in order to reach new audiences. Our plan this week involved making a Facebook page for our LLC and investing in some paid advertising………. you know- the annoying links on the right column that try to profile you (for my demographic its engagement ring ads and stuff to do with babies). I have no idea how this will work out for us, but we figured we’d give it a try.

If you haven’t done so, check out our campaign : Robot Army Starter Kit

Robot Army : Our First Rush

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There were some experiences involved with launching a Kickstarter that I had been heavily anticipating. The most obvious of which being the excitement that follows your first big rush of backers. – Sort of like Christmas, but in the form of a global affirmation that your ideas are liked, understood, and that there is a place in the world for people who dare to seize their dreams.

Though Mark and I were off to a respectable start… our momentum pittered out rather quickly and for a good day and a half we crawled through six or seven percent. It was agonizing. Maybe we were expecting too much. Since we haven’t yet been picked up by any major feeds, its been a matter of sitting in front of the laptop every morning and kindly reminding/begging people to post about our project and help us get the word out.

After blasting yet another batch of such emails to a whole bucket of contacts, I sprawled out on the couch and dozed off. It was a nap of acceptance and release. At some point, Mark walked into the living room and yelled at me for sleeping. He sat down next to me quietly and gave me a hug, feeling something similar- which I can’t really define. A moment later I picked up my phone and checked to see how long I had been out, to find that I had an endless list of push notifications informing us that we had new backers.

Long story short… I suppose Kickstarter featured our project, and once this happened we started getting traffic in a big way. We went from 37% to 76% by the end of the day… which is huge! It’s still sort of funny that this wasn’t the result of any PR we have done. Never the less… it’s good to see your hard work pay off.

Today, I am answering questions about international shipping costs. It eludes me how I can only seem to get astronomical quotes outside of the US. =/ It’s like I’m missing something. Angry customers is bad- so I’m doing everything I can to fix this. We are almost to 90% now. I feel lite and giddy. I may have a piece of cheesecake in celebration. As soon as we are funded however, Mark and I are both getting mega steak.