COVID-19: The ripple effect on a Kickstarter cat

MarsCat robotic cat
Now coming in September: The MarsCat, coined an intelligent home robot by its makers, uses multiple sensors; voice commands; cameras, and AI to mimic the behavior and interactions of a real feline.

Delays with Kickstarter projects are practically a time-honored tradition. In fact,a study of 48,500 Kickstarter projects by the Wharton School in 2013 found that over 75% delivered products later than expected.

That’s somewhat understandable, given the huge learning curve that first-time product developers often face with their projects. Though most backers seem not to mind, as long as they are kept in the loop with frequent updates.

With factories shut down and supply chains interrupted, COVID-19 has inevitably had an additional impact on product delivery times for some Kickstarter projects, That’s the case for the MarsCat, a bionic robot powered by a quad-core Raspberry Pi, which is expected to ship in September 2020 after a four-month delay.

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MarsCat is the first Kickstarter project for Elephant Robotics, a tech firm based in Shenzhen, China, that also manufactures collaborative robots. It was established in 2016 with seed funding.

In periodic online updates, the team behind the MarsCat provided backers a first-hand look at the unfolding drama of the pandemic and the unforeseen consequences to its production schedule. (Note: The author of this article is a backer of this project.)

The world’s first bionic cat

The MarsCat, coined an intelligent home robot by its makers, uses vision, touch, distance and gyro sensors; voice commands; cameras, and artificial intelligence technologies to mimic the behavior and interactions of a real feline.

The MarsCat Kickstarter project launched December 26, 2019 and reached 200% of its funding goal in two days.

The team met its schedule for producing a prototype in early January. By February, the project reached a remarkable1,000% of its funding goal, and the team delivered an alpha version on time. Clearly, there is a market for robotic pets. The Super Early Bird delivery of the product was on schedule for March and Early Bird Delivery was a track for May.

Then on all Hell broke loose.

On March 3, 2020, the team reported in an update on Kickstarter that the coronavirus outbreak in China was impacting the entire country. “The Chinese government also required an extended holiday after the Chinese New Year holiday and suggested people not go out to avoid the spread of the virus,” the team posted. “It’s hard to believe that people are staying at home for nearly a month instead of going back to office. People in China are making great sacrifices to quarantine the virus!”

When asked by FierceElectronics via email about their initial reaction to the coronavirus and the shutting down of much of China, the team at Elephant Robotic’s said their response was: “Oh crap, we need to have a meeting first! Then contact our partners! Communication was our top priority.”

The team then reported to backers that after coming to a complete halt in February, factories in China were just coming back to work, but not at full capacity. They noted that as a result, production of the Beta version would slip to early April from March, thus creating a ripple effect that would delay the planned production of small batches, and hence delivery of the product to Early Bird backers would be delayed by two months.

“We are using multiple vendors for different components, and they all have been impacted to varying degrees,” said Elephant Robotics.

In mid-March, they reported to backers that they were busy communicating with factories producing the hardware, which could potentially further delay production of some of the components. “We are still on track, and we will keep you updated once there is any more information,” they reported.

Not to miss an opportunity, the team planned to use the unexpected downtime to make some improvements to the design, focusing on the walking behavior of the MarsCat. They changed the software algorithm and the industrial design—specifically redesigning the leg joint. That seemingly small change would impact the schedule yet again.

After contacting their mold factory about the change, the team discovered they had underestimated the impact caused by COVID-19. Not only was the factory facing a labor shortage, it had switched over to mask making, created a backlog of customer orders to be processed.

Given the design change, the factory informed the team that products for assembly would not be manufactured until early to mid-August. The team estimates it will need another month to assemble and test, pushing the shipment date of MarsCats out to September.

Efforts to find an alternative mold factory were fruitless, they said, with costs not controllable and quality not guaranteed.

But barring any further unforeseen issues, Elephant Robotics is confident that it can hit the September schedule with an improved MarsCat. And, in fact, it is taking orders from its online shop at a special pre-order price of $799--$500 off the list price.

RELATED: COVID-19 testing with help of a robot


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