UM-Dearborn professor brings toys to life through 3D printing

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Like many children fascinated with “Star Wars,” Samir Rawashdeh dreamed of having his own R2-D2 — a robot droid and sidekick that would accompany him on his adventures.

As an adult, he decided to make those dreams a reality when he 3D-printed a replica of R2-D2.

Rawashdeh, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at UM-Dearborn, first found time to experiment with 3D printing at the droid-scale during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. Before then, he had been printing objects to paint with kids, Maia, 8, and Adam, 5.

He found 3D printing and then painting familiar figurines for his kids — including characters from the popular cartoon “Paw Patrol” — was a great way to connect and pass time during lockdown.

A photo of two robots that a professor 3D printed
Samir Rawashdeh 3D printed replicas of the “Star Wars” droids R2-D2 (left) and D-O (right) and engineered them into robotic toys for his kids. (Photo courtesy of Samir Rawashdeh)

“It was a fun family thing to do while we were locked down all the time, and I think I’ve learned a lot doing it,” Rawashdeh said.

With so much of his work focused on technical intricacies and mechanics, he said, indulging in a creative hobby can be satisfying.

“The creative aspect is really rewarding. … Just like how people paint, bake or cook, creating something is a fun hobby for me,” he said. “I think some people want to do (as a hobby) something totally unrelated to work, and some people want to stay within.

“I guess I’m kind of staying close to what I’ve been good at, but the added creative aspect is really fun.”

He soon realized he could combine his passion for engineering with the hobby by adding motors and controls to the toys to animate them.

Samir Rawashdeh
Samir Rawashdeh

One of his first mobile creations was a robot constructed entirely of LEGOs. He engineered a small mechanism that swiveled the robot’s head and arms and was delighted to see his kids respond positively to the toy.

Encouraged to explore more complex designs, Rawashdeh was particularly excited to create replicas of the popular droids R2-D2 and D-O. His kids loved interacting with the robots, which Rawashdeh controlled with a small remote, and started treating them almost as pets.

Rawashdeh noticed his daughter, Maia, tried giving the toys a hug and taking them on walks around the house. He marveled at the way children can form attachments with toys that seem autonomous.

“That got me interested in the area of human-robot interaction,” Rawashdeh said. “It’s just plastic and a bunch of motors. But somehow it becomes more than the sum of its parts.”

Inspired by his kids’ interaction with the toys, Rawashdeh is now exploring human-robot interactions in his work. He is developing an animatronic robot shaped like a plush owl that listens and responds to a person’s problems.

Rawashdeh pointed to the Paro therapeutic robotic seals that were designed to comfort patients with dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and other disorders. The clinical trials showed the robot could be helpful in similar ways as support animals.

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“I think there’s a shortage of mental health resources to go around. And if you could talk to an AI at the moment of crisis, or just even regularly like talk therapy, I think it could be helpful,” Rawashdeh said. “We bond with our pets, so why couldn’t we bond with a robot that’s a great listener and has helpful advice?”

Rawashdeh said he hopes to create a tool that helps people, while continuing to create his own robots for his kids on the side.

A particularly enjoyable part of creating the robots is the quick turnaround. Rawashdeh said that in his academic work, the reward cycle can be painfully slow: writing a proposal, going through rejections, conducting the research, then finally building the system and publishing a paper years down the line.

When building toys for fun, he can print and create a fully functioning robot over a few weekends.

“It’s hard to stay motivated when the reward cycle comes in so late. … It’s exhausting to just work, grind and then not see the fruits until so much later,” Rawashdeh said. “So, with droid building, the short reward cycle is very nice. It keeps me motivated.”

Q&A

What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?  

This past semester as I was wrapping up the last lecture of my undergraduate course and reflecting on the semester, I realized that I had just concluded my 10th year at UM-Dearborn. The students surprised me with applause.

What can’t you live without?  

Coffee and soccer (not at the same time).

Name your favorite spot on campus.  

The robotics labs, of course.

What inspires you?  

Good ideas with great potential.

What are you currently reading? 

“The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough.

Who had the greatest influence on your career path? 

My two older brothers. They taught me countless skills and life lessons growing up and paved the way by earning their doctorates before me.

What is your favorite vacation spot?

The Upper Peninsula in the summer.

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