Fifteen years after giving up baseball card collecting, Jim Parker caught the Topps Heritage baseball card bug in the early 2000s when he saw Kerry Wood, a pitcher for his beloved Chicago Cubs, pictured on a 1953-style card.
He has since amassed about a quarter million Heritage cards through buying collections and direct purchase of cases. Over the last decade, he has dealt exclusively Heritage singles, sets and oddities to nostalgic-minded collectors on eBay and by direct sale. Fortunately, he finds sorting cards by hand more relaxing than tedious, and his 10-year-son Jakob helps out.
Yet, he thought “it would be awesome to find a way to automate this.”
From Black Jack to Jackie Bradley Jr.
While perusing a website called SparkFun a year ago, he found a small robot from a Chinese company called uArm. It was a desktop device capable of picking up a deck of cards and dealing Black Jack. Parker had other ideas for the $300 robot and its open source software.
“I started tinkering with the software. The biggest thing I needed was a camera system that could examine the card and put it in the right pile,” he said.
Fortunately, he didn’t have to look far. The 49-year-old engineer and software designer leads a team of PdD scientists and engineers at the company where he works. They make and sell such cameras and the software that allows creation of machine vision algorithms for them.
Parker modified some programming to read the numbers on 2017 Heritage cards, then used 3D printing to create a fixture to affix the camera to the robot and wrote programming for it to lift and drop cards in precise places. Testing proved successful.
So, as 16 cases of 2018 Heritage cards arrived at his Syracuse, N.Y., home this week, the robot was waiting as father and son prepared to break open their cases and rip the “wax” to collate master sets for which Parker has advance orders in his eBay store. From the roughly 40,000 cards, he will load a six-inch stack of about 300 base cards into the robot and flip a switch.
Over 30 minutes, the robot will read the number on the back of each card and determine where to place it. Even with a 20 percent discard rate – some card numbers are located in places other than where the robot is programmed to look – Parker has created a competitive advantage for a side business to which he dedicates about 10 hours a week.
By the time the cards depicting today’s players in the look of the 1969 Topps design are processed, Parker will have twice run about 35,000 cards through the robotic sorter – once for counts by 100s and once for counts by 10s. After that, he finishes the sorting by hand.
“Ideally, I could put a stack of cards in and it would build the piles one by one and I could build the set,” said Parker. “That will require a little more involved software.”
And a better robot. With a full extension of just 18 inches, the current model can pick and place just 12 stacks because its accuracy is plus or minus a half an inch. Parker is eyeing an upgraded uArm unit that promises accuracy within 2 millimeters.
When he posted a video of the card-sorting robot on a few internet sites, the reaction overwhelmed him. In addition to countless “I want one” emails, he received a few suggestions for improvement, including one to center the guides for the suction cup that picks up the card to avoid possible damage when the card is dropped onto a pile.
A Work in Progress
Though he has experienced no damage to cards so far, the robot “is not really consumer friendly yet,” and he has no plans to make any for sale. Parker avoids processing short prints, game-used or stadium relics, chrome or autographed cards. Breaking Heritage cases feeds his personal collection that includes a master set of each Heritage set since 2001. He also has one of every “blue ink” autographed Heritage card picturing a Hall of Famer, and the serial-numbered chrome refractor sets for each year they were made.
Like any manufacturing process, automated card sorting will improve over time. For those who would dismiss sorting 300 cards in 30 minutes as no big deal, consider a fully automated feeder process in which cards would be grabbed, read and sorted from a 3,200-count monster box to make a base set. Parker says he could create such a system.
“I am happy with where it is right now. It is doing the job I want it to do,” Parker said. “I find it funny that they (Topps) do all this work to randomize these cards and we dealers are spending all this time to unrandomize them.”
The robot, which has a relatively small footprint and stands only about a foot high, easily clamps to the dining room table for the two weeks each spring when the new Heritage cards arrive. While he never got around to giving the robot a name, “my wife calls it my ‘girlfriend.’”