Only Smarties have the answer

Some months ago, my brother Dave was invited to a children's birthday party. After arriving at his friend's house, he watched as every child was presented with a balloon, marked, of course, with the words "Happy Birthday."

Sep 4th, 2015
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Some months ago, my brother Dave was invited to a children's birthday party. After arriving at his friend's house, he watched as every child was presented with a balloon, marked, of course, with the words "Happy Birthday."

Every child was thrilled except for one tearful soul who had inadvertently released their present. What was to be done to recover the helium-filled inflatable that now resided on the ceiling of the room? My brother suggested that by climbing a ladder, it could easily be recovered. Unfortunately, the owners of the house did not own one. Luckily, there are people a lot smarter than my brother that think more laterally than vertically.

In England, small colored sugar-coated chocolate confectionery known as "Smarties" are packaged in a small, round cardboard tube. Since many of these had been purchased for the party, the host, with a stroke of genius, decided to use one such package to solve the problem.

After pouring the candy from the carton, some sticky tape was wrapped around the package and launched in the direction of the wayward balloon. After a few attempts, the Smarties carton attached to the balloon with the effect that the added weight was enough to lower the balloon into the hands of one very grateful five-year-old. Tears were replaced with cheers.

Such out-of-the-box (or wrap-around-the-carton) thinking is also practiced by many systems integrators faced with seemingly otherwise intractable problems. By borrowing from established ideas and products, these developers create elegant systems that are more effective than those built using standard off-the-shelf components.

In June 2014, for example, Joseph Gochar, President of Logical Systems showed how his company had developed an air conveyor separator used to control the pace at which plastic caps were presented to a vision system (see "Vision system inspects bottle caps at high speed," Vision Systems Design, June 2014; http://bit.ly/1ScGw91). A different positioning problem was faced by Edwin Tan, Robotic System Engineer with Durabotics (see "Robot vision automates connector assembly," pp. 21-25, this issue). Faced with positioning tiny pins into a connector housing, Tan needed to develop a system that allowed a robot to pick a part, orient it and position it correctly while removing any excess residue that might be present on the pin.

"I had recently taken up archery as a hobby and realized that the action I was trying to perform perfectly matched the function of a common arrow rest called a whisker biscuit," says Tan. This device incorporates synthetic bristles and a hole in the center that is used to encircle and hold an arrow shaft in alignment while allowing feathers to pass through. By passing the pin through the whisker biscuit, the desired effect was achieved.

Like many elegant application, ideas such as these seem obvious once someone else has thought of them. However to realize them takes more than a degree in engineering. It requires talent in the abstract - a course that I'm afraid is not generally taught in universities.

Andy Wilson, Editor in Chief
andyw@pennwell.com
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