Dr. Bill Townsend’s humanlike robot once shook hands with Arnold Schwarzenegger, but attracting celebrity friends is not its primary talent. 

Townsend’s company, Barrett Technology, is a pioneer in haptic robot arms and hands, which can apply the appropriate amount of physical pressure in different situations like a human would. The technology now has medical and physical therapy applications, with the robot arm even being able to give a massage. 

The founder of the 31-year-old Massachusetts-based company, a spinoff from the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, recently shared insights on the robotics industry as a guest on Onshape founder Jon Hirschtick’s “Masters of Engineering” podcast. 

“Our robots have been used in surgery. But also lately we've been building robots that help people recover from a stroke,” he said. “The way this works is that the person puts their arm in a sling that is being manipulated by the robot and the robotic arm is holding the sling. And it moves the patient's arm around or actually, the patient moves the robot around.”

One of Barrett’s major innovations for making robot arms behave in a less machine-like manner was eliminating the grinding and friction of gears altogether and replacing them with cables rolling on pulleys.

“It's so simple and it gets rid of teeth altogether,” said Townsend. “So you don't have this problem of individual teeth being slightly different from each other which causes gear noise and backlash and friction. We got rid of all that by using what we call a gearless transmission.”

Townsend said he views the natural world as a proof of concept for what’s possible in the robot world. 

“If it exists in nature, that means it is physically possible to build it as a machine,” he said. “A person is a machine in a sense, and it's possible to construct a machine that can do what people do. It's just that the technology has to be developed in order to do that.”

Townsend’s passion for turning his ideas into reality goes back to his childhood dream of building his own treehouse. Growing up in Philadelphia, the future entrepreneur would read books about boys who played in treehouses and was struck by the irony that he had no place to build one.

“I used to think, ‘Boy, if I ever had a big tree in my yard, I would build the best treehouse in the world!’ So when I turned 14, my folks moved up to Newton, Massachusetts, which is in suburbia, and my father made sure to buy a house that had a big tree in the back,” he recalled.

 “So I built a treehouse that was enormous, and it had electricity and a telephone. It was almost like a home. And a neighbor who saw me doing all this asked, "How did you do that?" And I showed him how I made drawings and sketches of what I was going to build, and he said, ‘Are you going to be an engineer?’”

“Well, I didn’t know what an engineer really was at that age. I had heard the term, but I didn’t really think much about it,” Townsend added. “So then I started thinking, ‘Well, if an engineer means that I get to do more of this, wow that could be really fun.’”

Intrigued to learn more about treehouses and gearless robots? You can listen to Jon Hirschtick’s full “Masters of Engineering” conversation with Dr. Bill Townsend here

Subscribe to the “Masters of Engineering” Podcast

Jon Hirschtick’s “Masters of Engineering” podcast is devoted to the backstories behind cool products, the people who develop them and how they do it. As the founder of both SOLIDWORKS and Onshape, and now PTC’s Executive Vice President, Hirschtick explores his lifetime fascination with the product development process – how ideas evolve into products with many twists and turns along the way.

The first six episodes are now available for download at Buzzsprout, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, Podcast Addict, and other popular platforms. In addition to Townsend, here are the other product innovators to sit down with Hirschtick so far:

  • Styling Iconic Sports Cars (Mark Ferri, designer of the Corvette Stingray) – Ever wonder how your favorite sports car or luxury car got its classic look? Guest Mark Ferri, a senior industrial designer for Uber, was previously a designer at General Motors for 17 years. At GM. he personally styled (using both clay models and computer design) the Corvette Stingray, the Camaro 6, the Cadillac XTS and many other vehicle exteriors and interiors. In this episode, Mark reveals the challenges of redesigning the look of iconic car brands, and offers advice to aspiring product designers who are still in school.

  • Pickpocket-Proof Backpacks (Sarah Giblin, founder of Riut) – Sarah Giblin is an accidental designer. While waiting to get off an airplane, she noticed a fellow passenger nervously unzip his backpack and stuff his wallet and passport in his front jeans pocket. She soon unconsciously found herself reacting the same way: “My God, is my wallet and passport still there?” In this podcast, Sarah tells Jon how she developed the RiutBag, a backpack with zippers that go flush against the wearer’s back (with no zippers on the outside), and how she navigated the product development world without any design or manufacturing background.

  • Reimagining How Machine Parts Get Made (Mitch Free, founder of ZYCI and MFG.com) – Mitch Free is a college dropout who partnered with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to build MFG.com, the first online marketplace bringing together product designers and manufacturers. The serial entrepreneur is now seeking to improve the way every machine part in the world gets made. He’s currently the founder and CEO of ZYCI (pronounced “ZEE-key”), a CNC-machining, plastic molding and additive manufacturing company serving the aerospace and defense industries. In this podcast, Mitch reminisces with Jon about his unusual career path from refurbishing used aircraft to figuring out how to cut Ferrium M54, one of the toughest steels ever made.

  • How the Rise Emergency Ventilator Was Built From Scratch in 21 Days (Eduardo Torrealba, CEO of Meter) – Eduardo Torrealba is the co-founder and CEO of Meter, an industrial hardware startup that took on the challenge of building a more affordable ventilator in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. A typical medical device can take many months or even years to bring to market. The Rise Emergency Ventilator went from idea to deliverable mass-produced product in 21 days. In this podcast, Eduardo tells Jon how his extended team of 50 professionals – engineers, hospital clinicians, software developers, and 3D printing experts – designed, built, and tested six iterations of the emergency ventilator. He also shares how cloud productivity tools (and unsustainable 120-hour work weeks) made this amazing collaborative effort possible.

  • Will Electric Air Taxis Rescue Our Morning Commute? (Sean McCluskey, Additive Lead for Joby Aviation) – Sean McCluskey is the additive lead at Joby Aviation, overseeing design, manufacturing, and certification of 3D-printed components on the company’s four-passenger electric air taxi now under development. The innovative aircraft takes off and lands vertically like a helicopter, then smoothly transitions to forward flight. Joby Aviation’s goal is to reduce traffic congestion and give people “more freedom to choose where they work, live, and play.”  In this podcast, Sean tells Jon how battery technology, additive manufacturing, and advanced composite materials are changing the world of aviation design. Containing more than a thousand 3D-printed parts – including titanium airframe components – this air taxi could redefine the aircraft development process.

Stay tuned to this space for information on upcoming episodes!