We spoke to Atsuhiko Tomita, COO of PLEN Project Company, to find out more about the story of PLEN2, and how the PLEN Project Company brought this iconic 3D printable robot to life.
Hi Atsuiko-san, could you share a few details on your professional background?
“Yes, I used to be a trader working for a big financial company but around 2 years ago I joined PLEN Project Company as the COO. The CEO is an electronic engineer. He designed the PLEN to prove his belief that anyone can be a maker.”
How did the project start and what was the original goal of the project?
“PLEN was originally designed around 10 years ago and has been open sources since the Kickstarter campaign around two years ago. In 2008, when the financial crisis came, many people lost their jobs and became clear that financial companies were no longer working with the people’s interests at heart. At the same time, more people began to participate in education and technology development. For example, the CEO of PLEN was a robotics teacher in a university and he designed the PLEN to show the potential of “DIY technology” to the students. Then in 2013, the maker movement has begun to influence how technology was being developed in Japan but there wasn’t a 3D printable robot available in Japan yet. That’s the reason why the PLEN team developed PLEN2 as an open sourced version of the PLEN that would provide a platform for people to learn and develop robots. Our Kickstarter campaign was a success, we received over 180 backers, and our project came into being.”
What was your main motivation behind going open source for the project?
“First of all, robots are hard to sell. With the current technology, robots are, more or less, toys. If you don’t open source, people lose interest quite quickly. By open sourcing, people can continue development themselves so it becomes an education tool for children. They can learn robotics when they play. Second, we would like to become a platform for more innovation in robotics. People can learn from our design and keep innovating based on our design.”
How did you distribute the project files?
“Open source was a large part of our Kickstarter campaign. We provided links to our design files on GitHub. Now we host our project on Wevolver. We also provide an online operation system and mobile phone based application for people who are not familiar with programming.”
What kind of impacts does open source bring to your project?
“By open sourcing our design, we’ve gained access to talented people who might otherwise not have become involved. People have used our design to build their own PLENs and contact us with questions as well as lots of feedback and suggestions. We’ve also accumulated a community of around 200 very active people. It took us 2 years to get to the technology to the current level of the PLEN2, and we received 180 sales for the last year and a half. The sales are still increasing thanks to the type of promotion that being open source brings. Another thing I would like to mention is that by open sourcing the design, we exhibit our technology potential which has opened up the opportunity for other business activities as well as a good relationship with schools and universities. Actually, the other business activities generate more revenue than sales of PLEN2.”
Do you have any concerns about the open source model?
“We don’t have many concerns since it’s hard to beat our quality and the price is Ok. I know there are Chinese companies copying us who don’t open source their design but we really think open source is the best strategy for robot sales. We have better sales now than before we went open source.”
How did the media react to you going open source?
“The media have been very positive about our product. We have been over 250 articles in more than 20 languages. We didn’t pay anything for the advertisement. I think media like us.”
What is the business model for your company right now?
“The majority of our revenue comes from direct sales of PLEN. In March 2015, we found our investor and collaborator, Goerteck, from China. We are also helping Goertech develop their robotics products.”
How many people are in the company?
“So far we have 4 full-time team members and 15 part-time members, including interns from France, Australia and Greece. Goerteck has 5 engineers working as part of our team too.”
How big is your community and who are they?
“Our community mainly consists of 250 backers from Kickstarter. We have about 100 active online community members, and as we are holding many workshops. We’ve had around 130 participants so far. 90% of the community are Japanese. Because of the time difference, communication with European and American communities is hard, but we manage to respond and give feedback as quickly as possible. We check our emails and platforms to be engaged with our community. There are a lot more things to do obviously, but we lack the manpower and don’t have extra money to get a full-time community manager.”
What is the future plan for PLEN?
“We are preparing a school to teach robotics. We may have an online class for people in Europe, US and other areas in the world, but first of all, we want to do it locally. We also will visit Shenzhen soon, where we hope to find our manufacturing providers to make PLEN2 more affordable.”
You can find out more about the PLEN Project Company and PLEN2 3D Printable Humanoid Robot on the PLEN2 Wevolver page.