How to create a revolutionary robot from scratch

May 10, 2019

Behind the scenes: Gideon Brothers' hardware development team shares what it's like to work in a pioneering AI and robotics company.

Constant brainstorming. Openness to cross-divisional collaboration. Being able to present new ideas and suggest improvements and then seeing decisions made and implemented quickly. Getting to design and build a complex machine, starting from scratch – from the point at which it is still “just a string of words”. Creating a logistics and manufacturing robot that is set to change industries.

This is how members of Gideon Brothers’ hardware design team describe their work, quite contagious in their excitement, easily speaking of their creative processes, often finishing each other’s sentences and sharing mirth at some of the lessons learned.

Three teams make up Gideon Brothers’ hardware development group. Mechanical Design and Embedded Electronics have the task of creating the moving robot platform, the body and electronics of the revolutionary robot. The Manipulation team has its sights set further down the line, pacing themselves for an exciting long-term project.

No barrier to ideas

Everyone in the team points out that Gideon Brothers is a multidisciplinary environment where everyone is open to collaboration, whether they’re experts or young engineers and scientists excited to continue working on state-of-the-art technologies they’ve been working on in academia.

“We share ideas with colleagues from other teams, we take every idea into consideration, and great solutions are the result of this collaboration,” Dean Deković (Mechanical Design) says.

“Everyone will gladly explain what they’re working on and exchange ideas with you,” Krešimir Zidanić (Mechanical Design) echoes. “It is this multidisciplinary aspect that makes sure we find the best solutions.”

“You can discuss and brainstorm, and you find an unexpected solution,” Lovro Ivanov (Manipulation team) said. “Ego is not a factor here, even though there’s plenty of people who have every right to act like divas. You can talk to everyone, ask for help anytime, and everyone turns on problem-solving mode immediately.”

Information flow

Thanks to this openness, information flows not just vertically, but horizontally, between different teams.

“At Gideon, we can follow the entire process of developing the product. You always know why the team working before you made the choices they made, and you are in a position to choose the best option for the team whose work depends on you,” Ante Orešković (Embedded Electronics) says.

Of course, new ideas don’t come cheap, especially in electronics, and we research everything, Martin Malenica (Embedded Electronics) notes, and, as Dean Deković (Mechanical Design) explains, all improvements are decided on based on key goals of energy efficiency, ease of maintenance and keeping short- and long-term costs under control.

A question on communication with ‘the bosses’ also elicits praise: “There are no pre-set expectations, we can say no, and when a problem happens, we look for solutions to a problem, not whose fault it is,” Velimir Krha (Mechanical Design) said.

Quick turnaround on improvements

A fast decision-making process is another distinctive feature the hardware development team points out.

“When someone presents an idea at a weekly meeting, one person will get a task to research advantages and disadvantages. If the idea makes sense, it is implemented immediately,” Ante Orešković (Embedded Electronics) says, and his colleagues echo this feeling.

Having a short decision time is very important for Gideon Brothers as a startup, now transitioning to serial manufacturing, with each iteration bringing significant improvements, notes Krešimir Zidanić (Mechanical Design). With new iterations, the robot’s original nickname, Škaro – alluding to the Croatian word for scissors – also dropped out of usage.

Also, Škaro itself, the prototype, had a swift development path – Dean Deković remarks that the robot was driving around less than seven months after they had created the first 3D parts of the robot in their CAD system.

A company of pioneers

Everyone in Hardware Development speaks of how exciting it is to be working on developing such an exciting machine from scratch. Everybody feels like a pioneer, notes Lovro Ivanov (Manipulation).

“It was the fact that Gideon works with state-of-the-art technology which drew me here from another interesting job. However, this was closer to what I had been working on at university,” Lovro Ivanov (Manipulation) says, and his colleague Mateo Polančec (Manipulation) adds that he had been considering a doctorate, but was more attracted to a chance to develop something “real” with the Gideon team. The feeling is echoed by Josip Pavičić (Mechanical Design) who says that he declined the offer to stay at university for a doctorate as he “prefers creating things to writing articles and deriving mathematical proofs.”

That’s the best “selling point” for new employees – the fact that people can continue working on advanced technologies that they’ve worked on in academia, says Filip Zorić, another member of the Manipulation team.

“Mobile robots have been appearing in academic papers for some time now, but making something truly robust, and having it work among people is a whole different matter. We feel it’s a privilege that we have the chance to test, make and bring it into the world”, Lovro Ivanov says.

“I love that we solve real problems at Gideon. Moreover, I come to work and play and get paid for it”, adds Filip Zorić with a gleeful smile.

“I believe everyone feels the need to be creative. You are lucky if you get a chance to do this”, said Josip Pavičić (Mechanical Design).

What comes across very clearly from the team is the confidence in what Gideon Brothers is creating.

“At Gideon, everyone believes that we’re building a robust product that is going to succeed. We have a great team, all experts in their field, all working on the same goal and success is bound to follow”, concludes Filip Zorić.

Mechanical Design

“We’re turning ideas – well, words basically – into a real, physical product,” says Dean Deković, of Gideon Brothers’ Mechanical Design team. The greatest challenge, he explains, was the limited space [within the robot], with the robot’s size almost equal in dimension to a standard pallet.

The most complex part of the robot, from the mechanical design standpoint, is the lifting mechanism, with the many moving parts and the cramped space they must fit into.

“Our job is to solve problems – how to give a physical form to a pallet-carrying machine learning system,” their work summed up by Velimir Krha.

Every iteration improves in leaps. For example, the time the scissors need to lift a full load has been shortened from 15 to 5 seconds.

Krešimir Zidanić noted an interesting aspect of the dynamic workflow: he feels the direct connection between his CAD designs and the finished project. “In most companies, the designer will forget what he was working until the part arrives,” he says.

“Companies where a mechanical engineer can work on something really interesting, creating an entirely new product, like at Gideon Brothers, are rare. Small firms usually can’t afford development and mechanical engineers there usually work at simple, repetitive tasks. In large companies, an individual is just a cog in the machine, often working on just a small part of the design. Just like working on an assembly line,” says Josip Pavičić. “It’s amazing that we get to work in development and that we have an overview of the entire product. It’s great that, when I devise and draw something, I can hold it in my hand after just a few days – this is something that brings great joy,” he concludes.

Manipulation

This small team has an exciting goal ahead of them, working on new applications of Gideon Brother’s technologies.

“Our goal is on a horizon set further away, but this is good – we are building something from the very foundation up. We have the time to learn, to develop and deliver a product that should prove to be a great success for the team and Gideon,” Mateo Polančec said when asked if they feel their work is more difficult because of this longer deadline.

Their work is dictated by a different tempo, compared to their colleagues working on getting the product to market. However, it is organized in many smaller tasks, tackled one at a time, building one upon the other. “It’s a question of time,” says Filip Zorić confidently, pointing to the so-called Moravec Paradox, stating that it’s comparatively easy to make machines capable of high-level reasoning, but it’s difficult to give them the sensorimotor skills of a one-year-old.

So it’s this complexity of work that brings excitement, Lovro Ivanov notes, adding that the chance to develop technology was what drew him to work for Gideon Brothers.

Embedded Electronics

The Embedded Electronics team closely works with the Mechanical Design team. There are more than half a dozen different PCBs in the robot, each controlling one of the critical systems.

Embedded engineers work on both routing and coding, which they find a great advantage.

“At Gideon Brothers, you get to work on everything related to embedded electronics – PCB design, coding, testing,” Mislav Lovrić says, and Martin Malenica adds that, when you get tired of hardware, you can switch to software, and vice versa. Ante Orešković notes how, at Gideon Brothers, they can follow the entire process of developing the product, and “you always know why the team working before you made their choices which helps you do the best to help the team working after you.”

There’s another aspect of this all-around embedded engineer work in development stages: “We solder components ourselves, which is great – like having a vacation day from routing and coding,” Mislav Lovrić says. It’s quite clear why he describes the great feeling “when you see five, six separate PCBs you have worked on all connected and working, you pour in the code, and the PCBs all work perfectly.”