RoboHouse Interview Trilogy, part II: Wendel Postma and Project MARCH

For the second part of our RoboHouse Interview Trilogy: Robotics Engineer Work Life we spoke with Wendel Postma, chief engineer at Project MARCH VIII. How did he solve the integration conundrum: get a single-minded group of engineers to ultimately serve the needs of a single exoskeleton user? asked Rens van Poppel.

Wendel supervise technical engineering quality, and share responsibility for timely delivery on budget with other project managers. He spends his days hanging around Hall of Dreams at the TU Delft Campus, encouraging his team to explore new avenues for developing the exoskeleton. What is possible in the time we have? Can conflicting design solutions work together?

Bringing bad news is part of the chief engineer’s job.

There is no shortage of hobbies and activities for the Chief Engineer, Wendel. Sitting still was something he couldn’t do, which was why outside of Project MARCH, he exercised a lot. This year, Wendel made sure his team had 1 exoskeleton at the end of the year instead of lots of different parts. She also communicates well within the team so all technological advances are understood and with yoga classes so everyone can relax again. Wendel has many different purposes. For example, he might later want to work in the healthcare industry and finish Ironman. Source: Project MARCH website.

In day-to-day life, Arnhem-based Project MARCH pilot Koen van Zeeland is an executive in laying fiberglass in the Utrecht area. He was diagnosed with a spinal cord injury in 2013. Koen is a hard worker and his phone is always ringing. However he likes to take his time to have a drink with his friends in the pub. As well as the pub, you might also find him in the meadow, where he likes to walk his dog Turbo. Koen is also very sporty. Apart from exercising three times a week, Koen is also avid cycling with the aim of cycling up a mountain in Austria on his bicycle. Source: Project MARCH website.

Koen van Zeeland is the lead tester of the exoskeleton and has control over the movements it makes. Therefore, Project MARCH refers to it as a ‘pilot’ exoskeleton. As the 27th and perhaps most important member of the team, Koen is highly valued in Project MARCH VIII. Source: Project MARCH website.

Project MARCH is a recurring company.

Much of the drama at work stems from the urgency to provide at least one significant upgrade to an existing prototype. This year’s obsessions are heavy; a lighter exoskeleton would require less power from the pilot and motors. Self-balancing will become easier to realize.

To keep the exoskeleton from weakening, the passion for experimenting with carbon fiber, which is a material that is both light and strong, is immense. However, something stood in the way: the team had trouble finding the pilot.

My work ensures that in the end we don’t have 600 separate parts, but a single exoskeleton.

“Having trials is essential if we are to achieve our goals,” Wendel said. “Our current exoskeleton is made to fit the particular body shape of the person controlling it. The design has not been adapted to different body shapes. So it’s very important to engage the pilots as quickly as possible.”

Not having a pilot was stressful for the whole team.

Their dream of creating a self-balancing exoskeleton is in jeopardy. Wendel had to step up: “As chief engineer, you have to make tough decisions. Carbon fiber is strong, but inflexible and difficult to machine. That’s why we switched to aluminum, because it’s easier to modify even after it’s finished.”

“It was a huge disappointment,” Wendel said. “Some of us have already completed carbon creation training. Carbon parts already ordered. The team feels let down. We have spent so much time on something that is now impossible – because of the delays caused by the pilot’s absence.”

“I learned that delivering bad news is part of the chief engineer’s job. The next step is to see how to turn the engineers’ enthusiasm for carbon fiber into new solutions and reimplement their personal qualities.”

Wendel said the job also taught him to consider a hundred things at the same time. And to sacrifice. Project MARCH involves long work days and maybe not seeing as many of your friends and roommates as you’d like.

A naturally curious person, Wendel found that curiosity must be tempered with grit to succeed in robotics. You often need to go deeper and learn more details to make good decisions. “It’s hard work. But it’s also what makes the job so much fun. You work in a very motivated team.”

It’s also what makes work so much fun.

The carbon story ends well.

When the team found a pilot, hard-working Koen van Zeeland, the choice of aluminum as a base material paid off. Through the process of weight analysis, parts can now be optimized for lighter exoskeleton.

The Project MARCH team has continued to grow through setbacks and have redoubled their efforts to create the world’s first self-balancing exoskeleton. If they succeed, it will be a huge hit for this unique way of doing business.

Post RoboHouse Interview Trilogy, Part II: Wendel Postma and Project MARCH appeared the first time Robot House.

Rens van Poppel

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