Shapeways interviews Andrew Plumb aka Clothbot

Shapeways Community Member Andrew Plumb is also known as Clothbot. He is doing some pretty amazing things with wearable electronics, integrating fabrics and robotics, with his Makerbot and on Shapeways. You can check out his site here or follow him on twitter here.

Joris Peels: What is a clothbot?

Andrew Plumb: Short answer: A cyborg teddy bear! (Cue the Akira nightmares.) Longer answer: A robot needs to play well with its surroundings.  In a household or office space that means bumping into things and people, surviving frequent encounters with fluidic space, etc.  The real world is messy.  I could spend my time waterproofing a standard tin-can robot, hammering out dents, adding proximity sensors and patching holes in the walls, or I could take a different approach.  Clothbot is about robotic or cybernetic elements integrated comfortably into our surroundings and on our person. Making conventional printed circuit boards (PCB) is messy, requires toxic materials to fabricate, and the end product is quite rigid. When your “board” is a piece of cloth and electrical conductor is thread, you don’t even need molten solder to connect elements into a useful piece of active circuitry.  Power up the computerized embroidery machine (I don’t have one yet) and you have a tool to build flexible, multilayered designs in no time!

Joris Peels: Tell us about your wearable disk buttons design.

Andrew Plumb: In the beginning, Bre Pettis needed a button so he makerbotted one. I asked myself, how do you make a great idea like Makerbot-printable
clothing buttons better?  Why, make them Lego Compatible!  To encourage others to explore the mashup potential I made the design
source available under a simple Creative Commons – By license.

Now, a Makerbot is great for printing out fabricated objects (I call
them fabjects) near the size of a cupcake, hence the product name
Cupcake CNC.  However, as the design dimensions approach the 0.5mm
diameter aperture of the extruder nozzle, the resulting fabjects get
rough.  My MakerBot prototype gave me enough confidence in the
soundness of my basic design to place that first order with Shapeways.

Getting back to the clothbot idea, I
could have used press-fasteners to add, remove and reposition parts but
they tend to be bulky and short each other out if you don’t back them
with something more rigid.  I could have used more conventional PCB
sockets, which would work but would look out-of-place in every-day
wear.  Turning a button into a socket or touch-sensor hides the
function until it’s needed
pretty well and allows for more whimsy in
the design without resorting to spinning bow ties.

Joris Peels: Tell us about your soft circuits.    

Andrew Plumb: I’ve dabbled with soft circuits (like those Mouna’s electroniccrafts.org page) on and off for years but it’s only in the last year that I’ve really focused on pulling it all together.  Ideas are easy; implementation takes discipline.      

Joris Peels: Why are you so fascinated by organic things & technology?  

Andrew Plumb: On one hand, technology is what I do for work and play. I’m an electrical engineer by trade, helping my co-workers design integrated circuits (ICs).  On the other hand, natural organisms adapt to their surroundings by way of simple pressures of competition, cooperation and environment.  Organic technologies are those that integrate well into our tech-augmented lives.  Sharp edges are confrontational; edgeless surfaces rock and roll with the flow.  Sometimes you need confrontation – try trimming your nails without sharp edges – but for the most part you want comfort at your finger-tips and on your person.      

You’ve been involved with wearables for a long time…whats a wearable?  

To me, wearables computing, electronics, mechatronics are about mind- and body-enhancing technologies that meet us half-way between automating our tedious routines and amplifying our life experiences.  It’s a bit of a paradox really, a blend of those technologies that disappear into the background (taking pictures, recording sounds for future review, GPS coordinates, simple biometrics) and those that immerse you in a fully augmented reality (hands-free headsets, head-mount optics filtering and amplifying your vision, reactive clothing, exoskeletal robotics, real-time translation).  Striking the right balance at the right time is a challenge.      

What is the dream of wearables?  

I’m not sure…  I’ve amassed quite a collection of head-mount displays, data gloves, embedded computers and chording keyboards over the years chasing dreams, but I have integrated very few of them into my every-day activities.  I don’t like being anchored to a desk, but there are times when I find myself spread across two or three monitors deeply immersed in data for hours.  The simple augmented reality apps that are starting to appear on iPhone and similar platforms offer hints at what’s possible, but it still feels like peaking through keyholes. Virtual Reality (VR) systems from fifteen years ago felt more immersive because your hands were free and head directly tracked.  Over the years I’ve drifted to a more general pervasive, ambient computing approach.  …Ask me again in another five years. :-)       

How do you like your Makerbot?  

Loving it!  I had been tracking Fab@Home and RepRap projects for a while but the barriers to entry (sourcing materials, tools and availability of my time) were such that I didn’t jump into them right from the start.  When MakerBot Industries appeared with all the pieces in a convenient kit form, I pounced and landed up with MakerBot Number Nine (see http://clothbot.com/wiki/MakerBotNumberNine) from the first batch.  It’s been particularly fun being involved in bootstrapping the community from the beginning. As each new batch has come online the former-newbies have been pitching in answers to the more common FAQs and taking on wiki editing roles, leaving those of us early-batchers with more time to take deep dives into the larger set of reprap development activities.  In the larger ecosystem of rapid prototyping technologies, I think of my Cupcake as a “bone maker”.  It’s great for prototyping ideas and making the scaffolding around which to wrap skins with more finish. Being able to take a design from drawing to prototype in less than a day is awesome!  When the raw material costs are so low though, being able to tweak and reprint a design ad infinitum can be a bit of a curse.  It takes time to learn when good is good enough.  Using Shapeways has helped impose some discipline on my own design process.      

What is Shapeways doing right? What are we doing wrong?  

The Right? Simply put, the breadth of fabrication technologies you carry.  You provide us individuals with access to manufacturing processes normally reserved for large institutions and people with deep pockets.  I’m really looking forward to seeing how my first stainless steel extruder nozzle experiment turns out!  The Wrong/Needs Improvement?  Just the usual list of technical gripes: – I can’t preview my store front and individual items as a visitor (anonymous or logged in) would see it.  – Get licensing hooks (CC, GPL, etc) in place; I know you’re working on it.  – I haven’t quite figured out how the star rating is supposed to work from the seller’s side. For example, one of my Clover Connectors  has been rated 3/5 but I haven’t even received my own sample print to check against.  Are they rating the design based on the rendering or because they got their fabricated version faster than mine?

Do you know of a recyclable 3D printing material?

The only recyclable 3D printing materials I know of are in the abstract
sense.  As long as the printing process is reversible, it should be
easy to recycle.
  For example, wax can be re-melted, glass can be
ground up and re-fused, some metal alloys (e.g. electrical solder) can
be reclaimed and reused. Even ABS could be melted and extruded back
into RepRap/Makerbot compatible filament. The developments made by the Open3DP project are particularly fascinating to follow.

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