robotic product, there may not be a
clear path to a future customer’s
problem. You must find and identify
this path. With any project, you need
to thoroughly understand the scope
and implications of the project that
must be addressed. Cost, complexity,
and technology demands can quickly
mire down any well-intentioned
Many times, designers and
engineers do not dream up an idea
on their own, but are bombarded by
the problems of a customer, society,
or the environment that need to be
solved to achieve a basic necessity.
Without a clear definition of this
need, the engineering design process
cannot begin. This is an important
step in the design and production of a
Define the Problem
Typically, a “problem” is the main
issue preventing a specific need from
being fulfilled. As the developer of a
robotic product, you can look at
robots on the market that have failed
to meet a particular need.
A problem must be accurately
and realistically defined in order to go
about the process of solving it. If not,
time and money will be wasted, and
the original problem may continue to
exist with no solution. This is quite
important to think about when
developing a future product. Here’s an
1. Get a clear picture of the
parameters of the problem.
2. Make a list of the objectives
and rank them in order of importance.
3. Many times, a robot cannot do
everything that a problem presents.
4. It is important to prioritize and
design a robot that can do the most
things and do a few things very
5. Have your robot perform
useful tasks or functions that
make your design stand out
from all the rest.
Research can be an
independent lonely endeavor or
a dynamic group activity. Research
must be focused and incorporate new
ideas and a thorough exploration of
old similar ideas. Sometimes the old
ideas are the best.
Ever hear, “Don’t reinvent the
wheel?” Old ideas that failed are
sometimes great research gold mines;
an idea might have failed simply due
to the lack of new technology that
may exist now.
For example, early industrial
robots were hard to sell because they
used hydraulic actuators that leaked
oil and were hard to maintain.
Hydraulic cylinder actuators can exert
tremendous linear force, but require
hydraulic pumps and oil. That’s great
for earth-moving equipment, bad for
robots. Almost all newer robot
designs use electric motor actuation.
Here are some additional ideas to
1. Explore other solutions to the
same and similar problems.
2. Look carefully at the
environment in which the robot has to
3. Analyze the constraints of your
project and/or competition carefully.
No ideas are bad ideas. It is
important to consider all approaches
to a problem. One that did not seem
feasible or make sense in the
beginning might be the way to go in
the end. Not too many projects go
through development on the first try
or on the best idea at the time. The
final project usually consists of a
collection of ideas; some that were
considered too risky, costly, or just
Listen carefully to your teammates
and their ideas. Every idea brought
forth in a group conversation has
Solutions must be separated
according to their pros and cons. This
activity is better accomplished in a
group setting. Brainstorming
encourages a maximum amount of
input from different levels of
experience and different approaches
to the problem. Alternative solutions
can be analyzed and cataloged
according to merit and possible use.
After these ideas have been
distilled to a manageable number,
those numbers must be crunched to
evaluate the probability and cost of a
successful outcome, using the
individual solutions. Larger factors
come into play here, such as common
sense and instinct. If it doesn’t feel
right, don’t do it!
This is one of the hardest things
for a designer who loves his/her
design to do: Stop and start all over
again with a new idea and direction.
The Ford Edsel (shown in Figure
9 that was going to be the “car of the
future”) and “New Coke” are good
examples of trying to sell something
that was bad from the start. “If it ain’t
broke, don’t fix it.”
1. Come up with at least three
design solutions and evaluate each of
2. Look at the number of parts
that are being committed to the
design of a robot. Are there enough?
Do they work together? Can the
design be simplified?
Design, Test, and Evaluate the Best
The design phase of a product is
perhaps the most challenging of the
entire process. Once the idea has
been discussed and directions
have been changed, it is time
to sit down and figure out how
to make it happen. Good
designers are willing to be
flexible when making tough
decisions, and willing to make
trade-offs and omissions to
make the design practical and
SERVO 08.2017 63
Figure 9. Ford Edsel, the Car of the Future. Not!