IMSystems is a promising start-up from Delft that is developing a new generation of transmission systems for robotic arms. As a result, robots will soon be able to work with much more precision, which means that the human hand will probably no longer be needed for the manufacture of highly sophisticated electronics such as mobile phones.
How is the IMSystems method put together?
“The working principle behind existing transmissions is that they convert the rotational movement of a fast-running engine into a slower but more powerful movement. Due to the mechanical leverage effect that takes place in this process, the power of a particular application such as that of a robot arm is increased. Existing transmissions usually use gears to achieve this effect. Our product does not contain gears but rather hollow cylinders of hard steel (with larger cylinders located on the ends) that rotate around an electrically driven solid cylinder, which also causes this leverage effect to occur. Our transmission system is called the Archimedes Drive, named after the famous philosopher from ancient Greece, Archimedes, who discovered the leverage effect. Archimedes said: ‘give me a lever that is long enough and I will be able to move the earth’. What we do with the Archimedes Drive is put a very large lever in a very small package. That’s what every transmission does. Our innovation is that we don’t use gears like existing transmissions do. They can cause a lot of problems. For example, there is always some slack between the sprockets. This is unavoidable. No matter how small that amount of slack may be, a robotic arm is not be able to move as accuarately because of this. If you want to assemble a mobile phone, the computer needs to know where precisely the robotic arm should place the parts down to the micrometer. Now the robot has to re-adjust itself each time in order to be able to approach that level of precision. And in the end, they still do not achieve the result that the manufacturer wants. If you look at mobile phone development, you see that this creates a stumbling block when it comes to manufacture. The phones have become thinner over the years. However, not much more than that has actually changed, even though they have been around for a long time. You can also see that the hands of many people are still involved in the manufacturing process. Because robots are still as yet incapable of competing with human productivity. With the Archimedes Drive, the rotating hollow cylinders are placed up against each other under very high pressure. This creates so much grip between the parts that you get the same effect as you do with gears that are interlocking. Except that there is no slack between the cylinder surfaces or between the sprockets. This allows us to achieve the precision that is required for meticulous assembly.”
What is the motivation behind the development of this new system?
“Our founder, Jack Schorsch, was once commissioned in the USA to produce lighter prostheses for active use. These included artificial arms that could move with the help of internal motors and transmissions. These transmissions were so heavy that they were impossible for a child to cope with. One of the causes was the presence of solid steel gears. Jack Schorsch then thought that many machines suffered from overly heavy, insufficient gear transmissions. That’s why he devised a new system: the Archimedes Drive.”
What has been the greatest challenge for IMSystems?
“At the moment, this is to prove that the Archimedes Drive has a long lifespan. Customers prefer a 20-year lifespan whereby something is up and running 23 hours a day. Since there is always a time for maintenance or a time when the production line is at a standstill, 24 hours a day is unrealistic. Of course, you don’t have 20 years in which to find that out. You can speed up the testing process by running a test machine at maximum power that contains the Archimedes Drive, when it is actually intended for medium use with occasional peaks. This allows you to find out within a month whether the transmission will last for 20 years. But even then, testing the lifespan remains a challenge. If something breaks down, you have to look for the flaw in the design. Then the engineering team has to discuss how to solve the problem. There is a huge amount of thought, calculation and draftsmanship involved. It can take up to three months. After that, the manufacturer has to make the new components. That also takes another three months. After that, we need to test the new transmission for a further three months. In the meantime, we have to pay the rent and the employees.”
Which was the most rewarding moment for you?
“That was two and a half years ago when we received the first proper transmission made of steel with which the working principle was proven. Before that, professors told us that our product was ‘theoretically not possible’ and ‘practicably infeasible’. Because they thought our transmission would get too hot and would slip. But that didn’t happen. From that moment on, of course, we knew that it would take years before we would have a fantastic, well-developed end product. But that’s just how it is in the transmission world. The last real breakthrough was sixty years ago. Today’s most advanced robots use the same technology as the cart that drove around on the moon sixty years back. Ridiculous really. If you look at the development of software, you see that computers have become much smarter. But robot hardware is still exactly the same.”
What can we expect from IMSystems in the future?
“Soon we will receive a large investment which should give us a boost in developing the Archimedes Drive further. And in 2020, we want to market a development kit that allows manufacturers to test whether they will be able to use the Archimedes Drive or not. That way they will be able to try out the technology in advance. If they are satisfied, we can see if a custom made transmission can be made in due time. This is how we want to build up a customer base. Many manufacturers of electric bicycles, robotic vacuum cleaners, windmills and mobile phones, for example, have their own research and design department that is always on the lookout for the latest technology. That’s what we’re focusing on now. We hope that the finished product of our Archimedes Drive will be ready within a few years. Then we will be able to deliver it on a large scale.”
IMSystems is one of the twenty start-ups that the pan-European network RobotUnion has nominated in July for a prize of up to 223,000 euros. The next round of this European start-up competition is in October.
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