Please can you give an overview of your company and how it was founded?
Schorsch... Around 15 years ago, I was working in the US as part of a project to develop a new prosthetic limb system. We had to create an interface so that the robotic limb could interact with the brain to signal when to move. I thought the major challenge would be to create a brain interface, but it was actually harder to get the simple things right, such as motors, gear boxes and batteries. The fact it was easier for a robot to communicate with the brain than to effectively transform rotational movement into useful torque and make it strong, really stuck with me and I began a quest to solve this problem.
I left the project in 2011 to do my PhD in lightweight powerful robotics at Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands. I came to realise that gearboxes are the big limiting factor in achieving innovation in robotics. In 2014, I had a breakthrough, discovering that if I packaged the power flow in a particular way, I could solve a lot of challenges.
I took a hiatus from my studies to explore the technology, obtained €50,000 of government funding and went to the University’s incubator. I started as a project leader on an entrepreneur course and then set up the company in 2016 with three co-founders.
What is your main product?
Schorsch... IMSystems focusses on high performance gearboxes for industrial robots. Our Archimedes Drive combines high torque with high accuracy and zero backlash, which is vital for achieving repeatability. We have removed the teeth from our drives, so they have continuous rolling contact and are based on traction. The downside is that each point of contact isn’t as strong as one with interlocking mechanical teeth, but we can overcome this by adding a number of rollers to the drive, limited only by manufacturability, to contribute to the traction.
What is the greatest challenge your business overcame?
Schorsch... Our greatest challenge is one we are still working to overcome — we are a component supplier breaking into a well-established industry. To penetrate commercially, quality is of the utmost importance. For a major robot manufacturer to use our product they have to know how it will run, will it run for 20,000 hours before failure in 99 per cent of cases? This is a hard milestone to overcome.
To ensure our drives are high-quality we have done a combination of theoretical modelling and practice. Once we have a good model, we build test units and run them in life cycle tests until failure, to see how they wear.
However, the industry has been very supportive. Every robot manufacturer we have spoken to is enthusiastic and eager for change.
What is the biggest innovation you bring to the market?
Schorsch... The Archimedes Drive is the first major revolution in gearbox technology in half a century and will change the world of robotics and other mechanical applications. Our gears have no teeth — they use traction to do the power transmission — and we have a flexible design.
As well as offering a better solution in terms of size, weight, precision and the need for maintenance, our drives overcome some of the major challenges holding the robotics industry back. For example, our design would not be subject to the long lead times that have resulted from the shortage of strainwave gears.
Also, we can design many variations of our drives, so they can be used in any axis of the robot, whereas a strainwave gear is only suited to smaller axes. The flexibility we offer means that a company can come to us with a specification and I can come back to them with a design.
How does your product tie into the growing use of automation?
Schorsch... For the mass deployment of robots, we need a more scalable drive technology. At the moment, strainwave gears are a huge bottleneck in terms of both cost and availability. Our drive technology will enable innovations that today we can only dream of.