Benchtop Injection Molding Boosts Sumo Robot Production

Manufacturing technology enables startup to build robots for educational competitions around the country.

Using a unique manufacturing strategy, entrepreneur Eric Parker can now scale up production and spread the influence of his Sumo Robot League farther and faster than he originally dreamed.

Parker, whose vision was to develop a product that brought software coding skills to middle school students, now sees a path to production volumes that are sometimes beyond the means of startup manufacturers. Today, he says, he can build ten Sumo Robots per hour, a figure that was once beyond his greatest hopes.

“We aren’t big enough to be able to afford traditional injection molding systems,” Parker told Design News. “But the solution we have now is a really good incremental step as we continue to increase production.”

In Sumo Robot competitions, robots push competitors outside a circular ring. The robots use electric motors and Arduino boards, and are programmed by middle school students. (Source: Sumo Robot League)

The solution – an automated benchtop injection molding system – places Parker’s company in a manufacturing realm that lies somewhere between the onesies and twosies of 3D printing and the high volumes of automated production. With a system called the BetaJet T1, he now builds the chassis, battery box, motor housing, scoops and tracks for his Sumo Robots.

“By moving from 3D printing to this process, we went from ten hours to build a robot to just five minutes,” he said.

It wasn’t always so, however. Parker’s original goal was to build tiny, inexpensive robots for middle school students, then sponsor Sumo Robot competitions around the country so more kids could learn the art of programming. Soon after launching his business, however, he learned that his initial plan of building robot kits with 3D printers wasn’t going to be practical. Even with a dozen 3D printers humming at once, the production numbers were still too low, and the labor involved was too great.

In search of solutions, Parker visited the Georgia Center of Innovation for Manufacturing. Experts at the Center first suggested injection molding, but that option was quickly nixed due to costs that weren’t compatible with the budget of a start-up.

“We would have spent $50,000 for the tooling at a factory that would do the production for us,” he said. “And then we would still have to pay per part.”

When the benchtop solution arose, however, the financial numbers aligned. The T1 machine costs a little more than half the initial cost of conventional tooling, Parker said, and doesn’t require a per-part fee, since his company builds the parts themselves. The 4 X 2 X 2.5-foot machine also provides a cycle time of slightly more than four minutes, making it vastly speedier than a 3D printer.

Using a benchtop injection molding system system called the BetaJet T1, the Sumo Robot League builds the chassis, battery box, motor housing, scoops and tracks for the robots. (Source: BetaJet)

“This system allows us to manage manufacturing in house,” Parker told us. “And it should handle our next two years of growth before we go to the next level.”

Based on its current growth rate, the next level may arrive soon. The Sumo Robot League is now operating in 19 states and four countries, where the robot kits are sold to middle schools, teachers, and after-school clubs. The competitions, which involve one robot pushing another outside a circular ring, are growing in popularity because the robots are inexpensive (about $120), and the lessons-learned are compatible with the goals of educators. In the process, the competitions also lay the foundation millions of job openings that will involve programming skills.

“We can see the benefits of having Sumo Robots in classrooms,” noted John Morehouse, director of the Georgia Center of Innovation for Manufacturing. “It gets younger students introduced to programming.”

Although the robots use electric motors, Arduino boards and microcontrollers, as well as ultrasonic and infrared sensors, students are spared the specifics of hardware design so they can focus on programming.

Parker sees the product’s market niche as lying between the simple graphical programming aides used for elementary school students and the FIRST Robotics competitions, which are more complicated and therefore reserved for high-schoolers.

As the market grows, Parker believes benchtop injection molding will continue to play a key manufacturing role. “This should get us through volumes of 1,000 robots a month, no problem,” he said.

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Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 34 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.


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