How an Artist Approaches CAD—Philip Norman and Ross Robotics

When you meet Philip Norman he doesn’t immediately strike you as an engineer.

From everything I’d heard from my colleagues, Norman had spent the last decade of his life building a modular robotic system that was being touted as a breakthrough by engineers, roboticists and some of the world’s most clever scientists.

My impression had been set. I was going to interview an interesting roboticist and learn about his project. Excellent!

But as I listened to Norman on stage at Solid Edge University 2015, I was surprised to hear him talk about his project’s past, present and future in the same way that an artist addresses the themes and development of their work.

As it turns out, Norman was trained as an artist and only became an engineer after curiosity led him to an interesting idea—could he create a universal connector?

Building the Connection Between Art and Engineering

The idea for building a universal connector came to Norman after watching his children play with construction sets.

For Norman, each construction set, regardless of its make, required too many pieces to build a contraption. The sets were overly complex and didn’t speak to Norman’s sense of simplicity, or claritas—the ability for a thing to radiate a universal truth.

With what he described as a weird confidence, Norman decided that he’d build a connector that had that claritas. It would be the world’s first universal connector able to mate with anything.

But something stood in his way. Norman didn’t have the tools to complete his project.

You see, initially, Norman’s first iterations through his design were done on pen and paper. But as his idea became more refined, its complexity increased, and the tools he had been using were insufficient to realize his vision. A new tool had to be used. And just like that, CAD entered Norman’s toolbox, replacing spaces once filled with inks, brushes and gouache.

To his surprise and relief, learning CAD, and specifically, Siemens’ Solid Edge, wasn’t as difficult as learning how to paint or sculpt. “Learning CAD was unbelievably easy,” said Norman. “I didn’t have any tutorials or anything. I just experimented with it and I found it very intuitive. I just played with the software, and learned it.”

With a new tool firmly in hand, Norman toiled alone for what he describes as “12 months of long nights” before his design was perfected. Shortly thereafter, it would be patented, and a new problem would confront Norman. How would he market his new creation?

Given that his initial inspiration was toys, Norman’s first attempt at capitalizing on his idea ran down that avenue. But after months of work and several successes, he just felt that the toy market wasn’t the best expression of his new idea. So he went off exploring.

Connecting with the Robotics Community

Travelling and engaging in dialog with people is an important way for artists to develop ideas and learn new techniques. For Norman, that notion certainly rings true. With his connector in hand, Norman started travelling around and talking with scientists and researchers about his invention. After a good deal of research and feedback, Norman realized that his universal connector could be the basis for a robotic system that could help people work in dangerous places such as nuclear plants, oil rigs and even the middle of the rain forest.

Norman went to work and started a company called Ross Robotics.

“Simplicity has always been at the core of the robot. We had to build a robot that was simple and modular enough that some guy on an oil rig could connect all of a robot’s components in the dark and make them all work without even having to understand how the system works,” he said.

And that’s where CAD came in handy. “Solid Edge is brilliant,” he said. “It’s like I’ve got a third hand. Without it this project would have been impossible.”

For Norman, Ross Robotics’ work couldn’t have been done without the power of a CAD system. Given his robots’ modular design, Norman and his engineers could create increasingly complex and capable robots for any environment from just a few simple components. However, configuring them from scratch would have been a tremendous waste of time. Using CAD, the Ross Robotics team could build standardized modules and fit them together to achieve any customer aim.

“You see, the fun of this robot is that it’s kind of subversive,” Norman said, grinning. “It’s saying to the industry, you’ve all been doing it the wrong way . . . You find out the specs, you design from a blank sheet, you produce the thing and you tell the consumer that it’s a good product, but it only comes in one flavor. Our robot is the exact opposite. Its modularity makes it possible for it to be anything.”

Today, after tons of success, Norman has started to think that he’s gotten his original design right. “I think the design, with its 3D modularity, is right, and that it kinda radiates a sort of is-ness, this rightness about it.”

Claritas might be hard to define, but I think what Norman is saying very nearly hits the definition.

CAD and Creativity—Blurring Old Boundaries

What’s most striking about Norman’s story isn’t necessarily the fact that it happened, it’s the fact that Norman started down his path so long ago. Sure, artists have been working with technology and scientists since Robert Rauschenberg teamed up with Bell Labs. But Norman’s work isn’t like Rauschenberg’s work. Norman’s work takes the artist back to a place where he or she has a better sense of control over what they’re making.

It’s a collaboration with technology, not a collaboration with a technologist.

Today, that collaboration with technology is becoming more widespread as the boundary between artist and engineer becomes grey, diffuse. With expanding access to CAD tools that are easier to use, an entire generation of creative people are satisfying their imaginations and need to create using parametric tools that were once the sole domain of engineers and computing wizards.

But for all of its benefits, Norman still sees a hint of weakness in CAD that’s stopped him from considering his robots works of art. “I miss the idea of making something in a way that’s hands-on. The thing about CAD is that you glamorize your efforts because everything looks so perfect immediately.”

For that reason, and several others, Norman chalks it up to “growing up learning a rigid definition of what art is and isn’t.” He insists that his work isn’t art. He might be right. Art’s a subjective enterprise. But if his work with Ross Robotics isn’t art, then it’s certainly a wonderful engineering achievement. People from all walks of life—farmers, security personnel and even CERN scientist—have adopted Norman’s machines.

For an engineer, that might be considered a masterwork. Artists would call it a masterpiece.

So, maybe in the end, Philip Norman is the quintessence of an engineer. He’s shaken off the 20th century’s view of the profession and moved headlong into the 21st century.

Siemens has sponsored this post. They have no editorial input. All opinions are mine. — Kyle Maxey

Kyle Maxey posted on January 11, 2016