Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Open Hardware Proposition

The Maker movement has truly been amazing to watch unfold over the last decade. Democratized information and tools have enabled widespread innovation and collaboration, creating dozens of hackerspaces and businesses in the wake. We love this and we want to be a part of it.

The issue of intellectual property is a tricky one. The patent was originally intended to protect inventors from large companies. After an individual would spend large amounts of capital for the required initial research and manufacturing, a large company with more capital could came along and create the same thing cheaper or faster, bringing the original inventor to ruins. The patent gave the original inventor a buffer period to create their products and provided a sufficient incentive for the populous to continue to innovate. At least that was the humble goal.

Today, patent struggles between giant corporations have crippling effects with injunctions and overall costs reaching into the billions. Patents now rarely belong to individuals, but to companies with ever increasing portfolios that they arm to wage war with. Is this really how we want to proceed? I've heard rumors of patent reform always being just around the bend, but that will be a slow and laborious process most likely. So what do we do until then? Well, it turns out that the ingredients of ubiquitous information on the internet, thriving online social networks and a slumping job market provide the right mix of time and resources to allow people to collaborate and contribute to projects they like, like never before.

Open source software has been around for decades and is the foundation of a lot of everyday objects...i.e. anything running Linux. It's only recently that we've started seeing open source hardware companies too like Sparkfun and Adafruit. Making software open source is a no-brainer, the costs of creating and shuffling bits is negligible, and the potential for people to add meaningful contributions or the code to provide educational benefit is a net positive for everyone. Hardware on the other hand still requires the moving of atoms: welding, machining, pcb fabrication, assembly, inventory all consume considerable energy and capital. By putting the files "out there" a company risks having their products knocked-off and made cheaper and to lower quality standards. How does a company protect their investment in their IP then?

The models are becoming more clear. A transparent business, with a growing community are fundamental to operating successfully. Also, trademarks and copyrights become much more important. The notion of someone making the same thing but better, or cheaper should be encouraged; this is why we do open source in the first place. Others must just follow the guidelines set forth by the copyright owner. Attribution and share-alike are common ones, meaning the person building on your work needs to also share it and give you credit. The person copying can't use the same trademarked name, and therefore can't steal the brand you've worked to build up too. The brand and community go hand in hand, and this is what people come back for. The support of the community, and to support the original creators.

Is an open source company, more or less lucrative as a business decision? Hard to say for sure, and it depends on the products and industry, but they can definitely both be run successfully. An open source company is likely more fun to run, and engages others to be a part of the process. Customer feedback flows quickly and more directly and qualified contributors don't need to be co-located but could live on the other side of the planet. The pros certainly seem to outweigh the risks, but there are examples of it not always working out like with MakerBot Industries and their recent pulling out of open-source. Is it the right decision for you? Is it the right decision for Party Robotics? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Some more reading:

A good book on the topic, covering crowdfunding as well:
Makers: The New Industrial Revolution

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Kickstarter Rewards

So, we are starting to gear up for Kickstarter and have been pondering some reward options. So far we have stickers, t-shirts and etched glassware. What do you think? Are there better alternatives, or are these good rewards? We'll have at least a couple of different sizes of Bartendro on offer, but they will be in higher price brackets. Some rewards in the $50-$200 would be good. What would you like to see? Ideas welcomed in the comments.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Presenting Bartendro 2.5 : A Shiny New Case

Out with the old:

Bartendro's previous shell was made out of stainless steel. Its aesthetic resembled a commercial appliance of yesteryear with its art deco design; shiny, brazen and robust. Many things had been taken into consideration, like the ease of setup, use and maintenance; modularity was incorporated from the outset. However, as we stood back and watched our humble machine get shoved, spilled on and endured all sorts of operational hiccups, our inner engineers knew we'd have to make some improvements.

                                     In with the new:

The first thing you'll notice is that the bottles no longer sit on-top in an inverted fashion. That design concept was with us from the beginning because we thought it was the most intuitive. The approach seemed the simplest; just let gravity do all of the work. While cool looking, it was fraught with technical challenges. 1) Flow needs to be measured since gravity will cause pours to be inaccurate due to varying liquid levels. 2) With standard bottles being inverted, air flow back into the bottle is very important to not cause vacuum. 3) The inverted bottles, even with quick disconnects, are not fast to change and are always messy when removed, and are not stable when inebriated people are hovering around and poking at the machine.

Secondly, the front is all clear so you can see the guts of the machine. When the bot was enclosed, people would need to walk behind the machine to see what was going on. This just meant that the machine had to sit on an island, which wasn't the end of the world, but it's nice to be able to access everything from the front so that the machine can easily be placed against a wall, taking less space. The new enclosure also reduces noise since the volume with the pumps is encapsulated.

Other improvements include, clean tablet mounting so that it's not in the way and won't get splashed on. Adjustable drip tray which allows the glass to be as close to the spout as possible to reduce splashing. Thinner aluminum and acrylic housing to drastically reduce weight. And, the machine can be disassembled into two major parts for ease of transport.

At our inaugural party of the new design, we beat our record by dispensing 287 drinks, or 25.8 liters of cocktails in an approximately 5 hour period.

Total Drinks Served by Bartendro so far:
OVER 1000!!!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Tales of the Cocktail 2012

After embarking on a 5 day journey to the beautiful city of NOLA, we have a new found respect for bartenders and the enjoyment of cocktails. This city is magical and exudes the vibe of good times.

We showed up to the Big Easy on 8/26 and as I was walking into my hotel room, I said hello to the two girls that were standing in front of the room next to mine. About 20 seconds later I heard a knock on my door, "Hey neighbor!" it was the girls with an offering of two bottles of imported wine and a wine corker, they handed it to me and said "Here keep this, welcome!" This surely set the pace for the rest of the trip. The handouts of booze, on the street seemingly to anyone that wanted them were surreal. We were handed rum and other concoctions by brand ambassadors looking to get the word out about their particular products.

As the days wore on, we learned about the format, the tasting rooms, the complimentary events, and the seminars. Our goal was simple, show a Bartendro video to as many people and see their reactions. From what we gathered, the mix of people felt like 50% bartenders, 25% brand ambassadors, distributors and other industry people, and 25% cocktail enthusiasts. Not quite what we were expecting, but it made sense after we learned that you could have bottomless cocktails for 5 days for a $45 seminar fee. We met a lot of interesting people, many of which were very opposed to the idea of Bartendro. We explained that our creation was a tool for the bartenders to help hone their craft, not to act as competition, but their answers were consistent. "That's cool, but not in my bar." Other business types were more interested, which gave us hope.

We attended the "Ins and outs of cocktails on tap" seminar. It was interesting to see how much controversy circled around using 100 year old beer kegging technology. People struggled with the issues of customer perception, keg shaking, line lengths and sanitation among others. It was eye opening. It was not the level of tech we were expecting from a cocktails on tap seminars, and astonishingly people were still very weary of such a minorly new concept.

Overall, New Orleans captivated us. The food was amazing everywhere, the people super friendly, and the cocktails second to none, even (especially) the free ones. Hopefully we will be back with more involvement, maybe as presenters, or even as sponsors. Thanks to the people that put this event on and the excitement about awesome cocktails in a warm and full of character city. Cheers!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Couple of Great Events - Barbot and Drinco de Mayo

It's amazing sometimes how much can happen in a couple months. In March, we went to Barbot 2012 in San Francisco to mingle with like minded cocktail making technologists. It was great to see familiar faces and meet new ones. Bartendro's aesthetic was spot on. It was a bold, shiny, well-lit piece of art. The bot performed admirably on Friday night dispensing 172 drinks, but we ran into some hardware/software issues that almost made the bot inoperable at the start of the Saturday run. We muscled through several issues and brought half of the pumps back to life for a usable 6 drinks. People were still impressed it could make that many, since most other bots were only doing 1 or 2 drinks. We were dismayed though because we had a selection of 30 drinks the night before. People were overall thrilled and welcoming of our robotic future, where drinks come with a button press. We got mentioned in a Make Blog about how we are "veering dangerously close to commercial viability."

Flickr Set of Barbot 2012

At the end of the event we stayed up late into the night rehashing all the things that could have gone better; a post-mortem analysis if you will. We agreed that upside down bottles were not the way to go. The upside down bottle concept carried over from our original desires to have a gravity-fed machine. The aesthetic is really cool. It seems like it would be a simple, no-fuss no-brainer; you can see the bottles and just swap them out when they run out. The problem arises when catering to larger crowds, not being able to refill the bottles as people are using the machine can cause quite a bit of downtime and this is a pretty big issue if this machine is to live in a commercial application. Also, the vent holes on the bottle caps (needed to not cause a vacuum) were prone to being leaky and messy. From looking around at the other bots this year, it seemed apparent that the winning combo is upright bottles and peristaltic pumps.

We made a long list of things to fundamentally change about our design. We would ditch the stainless steel skin and go with a simpler design. The pumps would also need a form of adjustability to reduce leakage and contamination of drinks. Over a couple of months I iterated over modification designs that would allow for adjustment with one knob. Finally, we had something worthwhile. I retrofitted the pump with new tubing to and re-routed it. Meanwhile, in software land, the UI received a face lift. Elements could now be added or removed at will depending on the type of party, things like drink size and taster buttons were made optional. Drinks could also be modified on the scales of alcohol strength and sweetness/tartness. We prepared and showed up at an event called Taco de Mayo, where our friend rents a taco truck that serves endless tacos. Naturally, our bot was transmorphed into a margarita bot. There was 6 different kinds of tequila that could be selected to go into your drink and even a game to check for sobriety if you selected the top-shelf stuff. Several other drinks could be made too including a Dirty Sanchez and White Oaxacan. 201 drink dispensed in all. Our best performance yet. We received great tips and ideas from our friends to pursue. We're going to take our technical hats off for a month and put our business ones on to try to go make this available at your favorite restaurants. Cheers!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Light Your Bot!

In most of our projects, it seems like we always relegate LEDs to the backburner while we focus on everything else. Fortunately, we had the forethought on Bartendro to squeeze the hardware in at the design phase, even though we didn't get to work on the software side for a long while. Good LED effects are undeniable. With good placement and intelligent programming, they can make a product sing. Bartendro is case in point. The LEDs in the back are dual purpose, they light the bot with a silky purple haze for people to enjoy the view of the innards, but the color can be changed to pure white for brighter easier debugging in a perfectly dark room. The ring of RGB LEDs which hover directly over a user's cup serve many purposes. They let us know when the bot has booted and is ready for communication, and they let users know what's going on in the process of their drink creation. A pattern while it pours, and flashing green when the drink is done being poured. When all is said and done, a soft blue lets the user know that the machine is in an idle state and ready to take on more drink orders. There are even more LEDs that aren't powered up yet, which are supposed to emit focused light from the faucet. The intent is that they cue users as to where their cups should be placed. So when working on your projects, make sure to let your LEDs shine!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Setup

Designing a cocktail dispensing machine may not sound very difficult, but when one considers that most of the components are not readily available for purchase off the shelf, one must design their own. There are a lot of tools that go into creating a complex electro-mechanical machine like a drink bot. There are solid modeling tools, like SolidWorks and Alibre, CAM tools like SprutCam and the software that runs a the CNC machine, like Mach 3. The CNC machine is a PCNC 1100 made by Tormach, and it is a joy to use. All of the tools need to work in unison to achieve the desired results. These tools cover the basics required for machining parts. When it comes to the electronics, schematic and layout tools are required. In my case, I used EagleCAD because of the existing community and pre-made parts that allowed for fast development time. Boards can be cheaply fabricated in China by Golden Phoenix and modules from Sparkfun and Pololu make development even easier and more modular.

All software tools have their quirks, and when it comes down to it, it is just a matter of patience to learn how to use things in an efficient matter. Having these hardware and software tools in place allows us to iterate over and over tuning and refining until we are happy with the quality and performance of our creations. The tool set allows us to also make a wide array of parts, mechanisms and machines that make people's lives easier and more enjoyable. So, get some tools and start creating!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Peristaltic Pumps

Peristaltic Pumps are not new, they are pumps that mimic peristalsis, a biological mechanism most commonly depicted as the muscle contractions of a swallowing esophagus. The vast majority of these pumps serve the medical and pharmaceutical industries. This does not bode well for hobbyists because the pumps are priced at an average of $300 each. When attempting to build a cocktail machine that dispenses over a dozen liquids, the cost becomes prohibitive.

"Why use a peristaltic pump in the first place?", you might be thinking. Well, for many reasons. The first and most obvious reason is maintenance. Since liquid does not pass through any moving parts, it becomes easy to swap out or clean hoses when necessary. In the same vein, reliability. Syrupy liquids like grenadine and Bailey's tend to gum up mechanical pumps and valves pretty quickly. Sanitation then becomes another issue when liquids become trapped in the crevices of a mechanical assembly and become impossible to clean. Finally, accuracy and simplicity are the final components that put the nail in the coffin on other approaches. While gravity valves and simple diaphragm pumps are a possibility, there is still a big issue with dealing with different densities and viscosity of liquids. Since peristaltic pumps are positive displacement, meaning they dispense the exact same amount of volume with every revolution of the motor and gearhead, it simply becomes a software problem to account for the number of motor rotations for accuracy. This is much easier and cheaper than fashioning some sort of flow rate meter.

When designing the pump, several factors need to be taken into account such as the occlusion of the tubing, the ease of assembly/dis-assembly of the tubing, maintainability and modularity. The picture shows the parts for the first batch of peristaltic pumps I made. There is a plate that the motor mounts to, a hub with sleeve bearing rollers, a shoe which is replaceable and provides the right amount of occlusion, and a support for the hub that prevents lateral motions from causing it to run to eccentrically. All in all they can be built for under $100 given the right amount of tools and resources.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Bartendro 2 Frame and Enclosure Build

We built the frame using 1" aluminum square tubing, which seemed to offer the best balance between weight and strength. The individual pieces were cut to length on a milling machine and the edges that were going to be butt or T-joint welded were chamfered to reduce the amount of weld bead that would need to be ground down afterwards. Jerad TIG welded the frame together using his new beefy Bessey corner clamps, it only took him a couple of hours. 

The enclosure itself was made of 16 gauge 304 stainless steel. 12 and 14 gauge were considered at first because less structural members would be needed, but the cost of thick stainless was prohibitive. The 32" overall length emerged from the hassles of transporting the original Bartendro. Two people were required to move the machine, and it could only fit into a sedan that had its passenger seat removed, and still it would gouge chunks out of the interior in the process. The design criteria were simple: fit through a door frame, fit in the trunk of my Honda Accord, and be able to be carried by one person. Getting the sheet metal sheared and bent took about a week to get from the metal workers. Then the stainless steel tee fittings were post-machined and welded to the enclosure. Their precise outer diameters helped maintain a consistent and repeatable weld joint. 

The PVC coating on the sheet metal was really important in ensuring the finished product looked good and wasn't scratched up from the cutting and bending processes. I learned that it is really important to make holes in the stainless steel sheet first before making holes in the aluminum. Aluminum is really soft relatively, and is very easy and forgiving to make holes in later compared to stainless steel. Stainless work hardens quickly, meaning one cannot be timid when making a hole or cutting because it only makes matters worse.

Unfortunately, when the tee fittings were welded in place, the sheet metal warped a little on the narrow stretches, alternating between concave and convex. The additional members that were welded across helped to keep things uniform, but it was the use of panel clamps that made keeping things straight possible. They are quite useful tools, used frequently on auto body work, they allow sheet metal to be held in place yet still allow for minor shifts to help in the alignment process. Once the main panel was lined up, it was secured with  an abundance of clamps. Holes were drilled and tapped into the frame and the panel fastened with shiny button head screws. 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Water to Wine. Sacrilegious fun for all.

Yesterday, Lauren Blomberg and Brian Matis came over to drink wine and help me with a photo shoot for Make magazine. Brian had taken dozens of shots in August '11 of the broken down components and assembly procedure from start to finish. The shots were well lit and well composed. Fancy white photo umbrellas go a long way apparently, when it comes to taking good shots.

The editor at Make recently started working on the article so it can go into their next issue, I believe volume 30. He found that he was missing some action shots though, with wine actually coming out of the machine. When we disassembled the machine for the August shoot, connectors, tubing and wires were cut and it sat that way for a while. Needing to take the action shots was good motivation to put it all back together. I used some new food grade tubing from the local beer brewing supply and put it all back together.

We took dozens of shots in the kitchen while spilling water and wine now and again as we tried to work air out of the lines. After about half an hour of fussing, everything was primed and ready. That's when the silliness began. As we drank more and more wine, we began to become more intimate with the machine. Finally, Lauren thought it would be a good idea to put her mouth up directly to the outlet and consume that miraculous goodness. It was priceless.