On Tuesday, the 20th of January, I made the journey to Wollongong for a two day course in industrial robotics at the University of Wollongong. There were various learning labs available (forty to be exact), from creative writing to running a business. We were told to meet at the Hope Theatre on the first day, to be issued our name tags and were shown our seats in the auditorium. The founder of the learning labs gave a speech to welcome and thank us for participating in the program. Then, we split into our separate groups (which were determined by the course we were undertaking) and followed Daniel, our student volunteer through the university to the SMART building. There we met with Andrew and Michael. Andrew was a fourth year mechatronics student and Michael was a fellow who worked at the university. They were both volunteers, who generously gave their time to create and run the workshop. Michael started with a brief introduction and then a history of industrial robotics. The first industrial robot was designed in 1959 powered by hydraulics and it could only move in two degrees of freedom. Robotics developed over the years, gaining more degrees of freedom which allowed the robot to complete more complex tasks. In the 1980’s, the Z shaped robot was created, which could move in 6 degrees of freedom because of the six electric motors which power each axis, which could be extended to 7 if it was mounted on a rail. This was a revolutionary invention, which was so ingenious; it hasn’t changed in over 30 years. Then we were taken on a tour of the SMART building and adjoin facilities. Andrew gave us a demonstration of what Z robots are capable of and showed us his current research. Upon returning to room number 4, we broke into pairs and were each given a piece of paper, that had a diagram of the feedback loop in an electric motor. However, it was not in order, so we were required to cut each individual piece out and work out how it all fitted together.
After that, we had a lunch break and upon returning, Andrew and Michael displayed the kind of maths that was required to program a robot that operated in the six degrees of freedom. It was mind boggling stuff. Then we were given exercises to do, that simulated the programming of a robot with one or two degrees of freedom, and that was complicated enough for me.
Finally, at the end of the day, we were told that we were going to be programming a Z robot, to weld a certain design (as specified by the programmer) onto a 150mm by 100mm piece of stainless steel. We were then sent our homewards ways, ideas jostling for attention.
The next day, the 21st of January, we returned to the Hope Theatre, and after waiting for the late comers, we returned to the SMART building to begin the planning for our various designs. We used a coding language called AAC+ (I think) which was specific to the robots we were using. It was an easily understandable language and did not need much explaining. After hours of planning and drafts, I began to write the code for my design. I felt that, in theory, my design would work, but it was a little different in practise. When we finished our designs, we saved them onto a USB and Andrew tested them on a smaller version of the Z robot we were using for the welding. Mine seemed to work quite well and I was rather confident that it would work. We were told that the welds would be roughly 8mm thick, but, unfortunately, I didn’t realise how big 8mm actually is. So, my intricate layout overlapped in some areas, and since the welds crossed in places, the heat from the torch caused the stainless steel to warp slightly, creating a less that picturesque finished product. After everyone’s design had been welded, it was time to return once more to the Hopes Theatre and go home. The course was quite interesting but I don’t think I will pursue mechatronics and industrial robotics as a career path, since Australia is severely lacking in an industry and I think the field is a bit of a dead end.
However, the Learning Labs were a great way of experiencing a different career that I previously wouldn’t have considered. They were well organised, interesting and also a great way of getting to visit a university and their facilities. The presenters were knowledgeable and passionate about their subject. At the end of the day, I think that it was a worthwhile experience and I recommend at least trying at least one of the courses.