10 February 2020

DrawBots in China

In January 2020, SensiLab and MADA ran a two-week design workshop in Shenzhen, China. The goal of the workshop was to refine the final design of the SensiLab Drawing Robot platform in order to move from a prototype to a manufacturable product. Five students from MADA, IT, Engineering and Business along with SensiLab Lab Manager Elliott Wilson and MADA Lecturer Dr. Rowan Page spent the two weeks immersing themselves in the consumer electronics and manufacturing capabilities of Shenzhen.

The trip started with a tour of the city beginning in Fumin, the oldest part of the city where we learnt that the city of Shenzhen is only about 40 years old. Before the 80s there was just a sleepy fishing village, now it’s home to over 17 million people.

We then moved to Futian, the main business district, where we saw the immense scale and speed of the development. It was staggering.

Our next major outing was a trip out of the city to Star Rapid, a prototype manufacturer where we got to see an array of different manufacturing techniques including Metal 3D Printing, CNC machining, injection moulding and vacuum casting. Viewing these processes enabled us to determine key factors which will make the plastic parts of the Drawing Robot easier to manufacture.

Having settled in and with an understanding of some of the capabilities, we dived into our first 3-day design-intensive workshop. We set ourselves up in the Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab (SZOIL), a maker-space in the Futian district, and got to work. In the first of our two workshops, the goal was to rapidly iterate on some of the existing design flaws within the DrawBot prototype. Each student was drawn to different problems, some looking at engineering issues, some focusing more on aesthetics.

During this 3-day workshop, we also made our first (of many) trips to the Huaqiangbei electronic markets. Shenzhen is referred to as the ‘Silicon Valley of hardware’ and these markets are one of the major reasons why. A sprawling collection of buildings in which you can find everything you can imagine relating to electronics: from fake iPhones and AirPods to individual resistors and capacitors. There was even an entire floor of a building devoted just to tape!

Our next field trip out of the city was to PCBWay: a printed circuit board manufacturer who make custom circuit boards. One of the most interesting parts was to see how much of the manufacturing time was devoted to Quality Control with each board subjected to both automated and visual inspection.

The second week of the trip saw another 3-day workshop in which we further iterated the design solutions we explored in workshop one. By the end of the workshop, we had solid solutions to all of the major shortcomings of the initial prototype. This was a great result as we have now finalised both the electronics and plastic parts for the robot and can focus on manufacturing them.

DrawBot v3 parts prototype

During this workshop, we also worked on a detailed business plan which included pricing for the robot at different volumes. This was much easier to do after all of the manufacturing tours and visits to the markets as we had a much better idea of how different volumes affect the prices of various components. This plan will help immensely as we look to scaling up the production of robots.

Finally, SensiLab would like to give a huge thank you to the students who attended the trip: Amanda Lowry, Andrew Feng, Angie Watts, Gideon Rubin and Will Richards. Their work was fantastic and was the main reason why the trip ended up being so successful.

Keep an eye out for more DrawBot news in the future as we begin to get robots out to more people. The next step is refining the software to make the robot easy and exciting to use!