Have you heard the one about the three robots hanging out in a department store window? Believe it or not, it's not a joke.

From mid-November until mid-January, many big-city department stores feature elaborate window displays. Some retailers go to great lengths to create jaw-dropping experiences for window-shoppers and pedestrians.

At its flagship store in Dallas, Neiman Marcus traditionally pushes the creativity envelope. Past projects have included a water-themed Christmas tree and a money tree. This year, the upscale retailer has a window that features three robots that normally would be more at home in manufacturing plants.

“The problem is outdoing yourself year after year,” says Ignaz Gorischek, vice president of store development. “The concept for the 2007 project began with a doodle on a napkin. What I envisioned was a tree and some robotic interaction. I had to sell the idea, get the tree produced and find an automation partner. I found it somewhat easier said than done.”

After a few initial inquiries, Gorischek met with FANUC Robotics America Inc. (Rochester Hills, MI) to discuss the unique project. The company, which provided robots, software and support, recommended the Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center (TMAC, Arlington, TX) to integrate the system.

The project commenced in the summer of 2007, with approximately five months to design the system, program the robots, build simulations and create the necessary tooling. One of the challenges faced by the TMAC team was combining the aesthetics of an artistic project with the high level of precision required on an industrial project.

The chrome-plated main tree and feeder tree rotate. The three robots, acting as Mom, Dad and Junior, pick and place round ornaments of varying sizes on the rotating trees. In addition, each robot picks up cue cards to communicate with each other.

Gorischek decided the “robot family Christmas” theme would help his store project a futuristic image. Neiman Marcus celebrated its centennial in 2007 and the theme of this year’s window is “The Next 100 Years.” Before the robotic window was officially unveiled to the public, Santa Claus flew in on a jetpack.

The robots, which sport red Santa hats, were recently featured in a television show about store window design. To find out more, go to http://www.hgtv.com/hgtv/spcl_prsntn/article/0,,HGTV_3909_5768505,00.html