Uses This

A collection of nerdy interviews asking people from all walks of life what they use to get the job done.

A picture of Matthew Borgatti

Matthew Borgatti

Lead scientist (Super-Releaser)

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Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Matthew Borgatti. I'm the lead scientist at the soft robotics R&D lab Super-Releaser. I build robots out of unusual materials like RTV casting silicone and seamless stretch knits to produce analogues of biological mechanisms. The overall goal is to turn ideas on how to solve engineering problems, like interfacing mechanisms with the human body and mass producing robots with complex motion, into practical technologies.

I also develop spacesuit components under a NASA subcontract. NASA wants to increase the flexibility of their suits while reducing their complexity, and it's a great application for soft robotics.

What hardware do you use?

We're always testing our ideas with physical prototypes so we use digital fabrication equipment to knock out experiments quickly in ways that we can tweak individual variables and track changes. We've got a 20"x12" 60W laser cutter and an Ultimaker 2 in house. We also make liberal use the CNC tools at NYC Resistor, our local hackerspace. Delrin is an excellent material for prototyping rigid mechanisms and flexures on the laser cutter and fabric backed neoprene cuts beautifully for experimenting with garments and medical braces. I also build prototypes in sheet metal and wire and use a homemade spot welder to get them together.

Since most of our robots are made from cast silicone we use an inexpensive vacuum chamber and vane pump to pull the bubbles out of the liquid rubber before pouring. The cast bots get made from Smooth-On's EcoFlex 00-50 or Dragon Skin 10. Heat set threaded inserts are really useful for fastening printed molds together tightly.

I always have a backpack with a few accessories that make it easy to work from just about anywhere. The pack itself is a GoRuck Echo. Inside lives a sketchbook, a Pilot G2 10 pen, and a BUBM case holding an Aukey Mini Lock battery, pill case, mini USB wall charger, and charging cables. I'm also fond of my iPhone 4S which has a Distil Union Wally stuck to it.

And what software?

I use Solidworks as my primary CAD program and run it on a 13" MacBook Air through Parallels. If a design is exclusively going to be laser cut I find putting it together in Illustrator to be simpler than Solidworks, especially for making reference marks, etching decorative elements, and making repeated hole patterns. I use Cura for slicing 3D models, Sublime Text 2 for editing code, and Arduinos or Teensys for making stuff go.

Documenting and publishing our work is essential so, to make shooting prototypes as easy as possible, I have a Foldio2 portable light tent set up on one of my work desks. I have a Nikon D5000 with the stock 50mm lens and an Eye-Fi card to wirelessly transfer photos on to my laptop. I cut promotional videos for our latest experiments together in After Effects and make gifs for blog and twitter posts in GIF Brewery.

What would be your dream setup?

The short answer is I want Dan Gelbart's shop. If the sky's the limit, I'd love more industrial machine tools to extend the range of stuff I can put together (even though it would take a warehouse to fit it all). Having an industrial vacuum chamber big enough to pour molds completely under vacuum would be amazing. I could make much more complex molds with really fine details cast accurately. On that subject having a more accurate 3D printer, like an Objet or Form 2 would vastly improve the quality of my bots. I'd also like a milling center with a tool changer like the Haas VF-1. I could do all the things I'm currently doing with plastic on the laser and more in steel up to three inches thick with a water jet cutter. A 3D scanner that interfaces well with Solidworks wouldn't go amiss either.

As for software, I am always wary of how much time I have to spend learning the ins and outs of a program before it starts producing results. I love what you can do with ZBrush, but I still get bogged down by its interface. Applying some programatic tools like Grasshopper to what I do could be seriously powerful. The Solidworks API offers a huge range of options for extending its capabilities. It makes me wish I were more invested in programming. The biggest thing would be getting a repository system with offsite backup for tracking design changes and restoring previous versions in the event of an accidental overwrite. I currently use Backblaze, but version control would be very useful.

As long as we're fantasizing, I'd also like a box truck to turn into a mobile apartment. I love the idea of making my own RV from scratch as a kind of traveling terrarium and live-in tool box.