Next Up: 3D Printable Robots

A decade ago when Limor Schweitzer went looking for investors to back his plan to develop small humanoid robots that would perform kung-fu moves and transform video games into reality venture capitalists weren’t interested, so he developed the technology with his own resources.“One response I got back in 2004 from potential investors was, ‘we don’t do time machines, flying cars or robots,’” says Schweitzer, a scheduled speaker at DLD Tel Aviv.

Flash forward ten years and RoboSavvy, the UK-headquartered company Schweitzer founded in 2004, is proving the future is here. The company is making a name for itself with a small prototype humanoid dancing robot named Fonzie. In addition to robotic equipment for the hobby, education and research markets, RoboSavvy has a three-year-old, rapidly-growing division that makes products that enable 3D printing. Now Schweitzer is meshing the two halves of the company’s business to come up with a 3D-printable robot.

“The idea of a 3D-printable robot is to reduce the costs in fabrication and maintenance of the robot and democratize the architecture for a humanoid robot,” says Schweitzer. The plan is to take advanced robotics away from MIT and the labs that have all the money and bring it to the younger generations, to schools and to developing countries where it would not be possible due to cost.”

While the structural parts can be printed, electronics and the motors have to be acquired. Schweitzer, who lived in Israel for more than 15 years, is after inventive ways to keep costs down such as using fishing wire instead of gears. He says the total cost of the material to produce a small humanoid robot through 3D printing would be about $1,000.

At its R&D facilities in Lisbon, Portugal, where Schweitzer now lives, RoboSavvy is developing what it says will be the first acrobatic 3D-printable humanoid robot, which along with Fonzie the dancing robot will be presented at DLD Tel Aviv. The company is also working on creating the most advanced one-meter-tall humanoid robot that will be used for research.

“We wanted to see how far we could go in getting a humanoid robot to mimic human movements,” Schweitzer says of Fonzie, the dancing robot. It was basically a proof of concept. Fonzie’s success has gotten Schweitzer invited to more than a dozen events around the world in the past year, proving the point, he says, that entertainment is a very important part of robotics. “For robots to do useful stuff, that is a different subject, that is a bit further out, at least for humanoid robots,” he says.

Revenue at the robotics division has grown about 50% a year for the past decade, boosting the company’s total annual revenue to more than £2.5 million. Revenue at the 3D printing business is growing faster, representing a potentially bigger opportunity, says Schweitzer, who in 2004 sold XACCT, a company he founded in 1998 that developed software for telecom operators.

In order to further leverage its success in 3D printing, RoboSavvy is developing an industrial-grade 3D printer it plans to have on the market by the end of the year. Schweitzer says it will probably cost about €6,000, making it more accessible than traditional 3D printers, although low-end models can cost as little as €2,000. He says the RoboSavvy 3D printer will be designed for professional use in offices, such as architecture firms.

As passionate as he is about robotics, Schweitzer is a realist and says we will not soon have a humanoid robot bringing us our drinks while we lounge on the terrace.

“Cost is an important factor,” says Schweitzer. “As you increase the size of a robot the cost goes up exponentially because it has to sustain its own weight. They can be dangerous due to their size and weight, power and experimental nature. For €25,000 you might be able to [have a robot that brings you a drink on demand], but I wouldn’t necessarily sell it to you unless you are a hobbyist or a researcher because it wouldn’t be a stable system like a washing machine. You can definitely get a robot to do some cool stuff, but it would be cheaper to hire a low-cost employee who could do it for you.”

And in the meantime?

“There are no practical uses for humanoid robots,” says Schweitzer. “To be financially sustainable the robot has to either be for education or entertainment.”

RoboSavvy continues to experiment on the entertainment front and recently developed a small robot that can interact with humans by gleaning information from Facebook. The robot asks the person to become his friend on Facebook after which he plays music the person likes and makes comments based on information in the profile. It can be as innocuous as a complimentary remark about the city you live in or as personal as: “I’m sorry you are no longer in a relationship, but you’re invited to a party at my place on Friday night.”

If RoboSavvy’s proof-of-concept models can be turned into commercial hits Schweitzer could yet prove wrong the investors who turned him down a decade ago.