Sunday, August 14, 2011

Foxconn to deploy 1 million robots - what does it mean?

According to Xinhua, the official press agency of the government of the People's Republic of China (PRC), Taiwanese technology giant Foxconn will deploy 1 million robots over the next three years to improve efficiency and reduce labor for tasks better suited to a robot. The robots will be used to do traditional industrial robot work such as spraying, welding and assembling.

What does it means to robotics industry?
Engadget suggested that ABB would get the contract to provide the robots, perhaps in partnership with Foxconn itself. More companies will be involved; very little information has been provided thus far. We’ll have to wait and watch. Certainly, this is big news for the robotic manufacturing industry. If for no other reason, Foxconn’s deployment will more than double the world’s industrial robot population. And it will do so outside of the auto industry. Next Big Future blogger Brian Wang says, "This seems to be the start of a renewed push to automation in industry. If other companies in China follow, then we could see ten times or more the number of industrial robots."

Why is manufacturing so important to national politics?
In America, manufacturing has been the engine of growth since the Industrial Revolution, and developing great products a national pride. Manufacturing within one’s own country helps reduce the trade deficit and promotes healthy economic growth through profits, wages and sub-contracts. At present, manufacturing represents 21% of America’s GNP and more important, 50% of exported goods. There is also a security/defense component to sustaining a capable homeland manufacturing resource.

Outsourcing weaponry, technology and high-tech R&D is subject to the whims and events of foreign powers and not under a country’s own control. Many nations understand the necessity for their homeland manufacturing and have initiated stimulus programs to sustain that capability and also to promote the use of new breed of robots to enhance it. American is late to the party with it’s AMP and NRI programs, but has just funded $500 million, $70 million of which is for robotics research relating to co-robotics.

The Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP) and National Robotics Initiative (NRI) focus on the importance of sustaining a strong homeland manufacturing capability which, in addition to helping offset negative trade balances, enables the manufacture of its own high-priority (military, defense, security, space and highly technical) products. America is just beginning to fund what other countries have been funding, in larger amounts for many years now, Korea in particular.

Is the Foxconn pronouncement a wake up call to America?
In 2009, Harvard Business Review published "Restoring American Competitiveness." Here are a few excerpts:
  • Beginning in 2000, the country’s trade balance in high-technology products—historically a bastion of U.S. strength—began to decrease. By 2002, it turned negative for the first time and continued to decline through 2007.
  • America has lost or is in the process of losing the knowledge, skilled people, and supplier infrastructure needed to manufacture many of the cutting-edge products it invented.
  • Even more worrisome, average real weekly wages have essentially remained flat since 1980, meaning that the U.S. economy has been unable to provide a rising standard of living for the majority of its people.
A recent cover story about “Speedup” in America by Mother Jones magazine provides poignant examples of how this trend has affected American workers.

Yes, there is a growing body of real and alarming evidence proclaiming the need for change – but, with America’s polarized and contentious Congress and fearful populace, nobody appears able to do anything about it. Are robotics and Foxconn the wakeup call? Probably not. It's more likely that the Standard & Poor's credit downgrade from triple A to double got everyone's attention.  It sure was felt in the stock market - and robotic companies fared as well as all the others... they lost significantly, dramatically, and did serious damage to investor confidence and their investment portfolios.

If this explanation from Standard & Poor's isn't a wakeup call, I don't know what is:
We lowered our long-term rating on the U.S. because we believe that the prolonged controversy over raising the statutory debt ceiling and the related fiscal policy debate indicate that further near-term progress containing the growth in public spending, especially on entitlements, or on reaching an agreement on raising revenues is less likely than we previously assumed and will remain a contentious and fitful process. We also believe that the fiscal consolidation plan that Congress and the Administration agreed to this week falls short of the amount that we believe is necessary to stabilize the general government debt burden by the middle of the decade.
How are the industrial robotic companies reformulating to stay competitive?
A new breed of flexible industrial arms is on its way. Almost all major companies in industrial robotics are trying to bring to market a similar kind of robot to cater to the needs of new-age manufacturing. Traditional companies like ABB, KUKA, Yaskawa Motoman and Fanuc are trying to bring their robots out of their cages in a step by step manner of evolution, while new entrants and researchers are trying to build entirely new kinds of revolutionary devices.

ABB's FRIDA two-armed robots, from the ABB website
The evolutionary robots are the 1-2-3 armed robots which have evolved from their older versions. These robots are highly suitable for large scale fixed factory-line processes. They have high precision but less flexibility to be a co-worker and need a lot of evolutionary steps to be able to accomodate medium scale dynamic environments.

On the other side are the revolutionary companies such as Heartland Robotics whose focus is to develop robotic assistants - the so-called "co-robots." These will be more affordable, easily trainable, safe and flexible for human environment but not as precise as the evolutionary ones. And they will address the needs of the biggest manufacturing sector in the country: SMEs - small and medium-sized enterprises. This video, made by the EU SME Project, visually highlights those needs.

Will robots make a difference?
Certainly the Foxconn deployment will be a boon to one or more non-U.S. industrial robot manufacturer (America long-ago lost this market - a market started in America - to foreign competitors). Foxconn's actions might speed up the use of industrial robots in other high-volume production situations, but it's not a market-changing phenomena. Instead, one thing is clear - that the service robotics market, where most of the growth in robotics is happening, and which is not dominated by any single company or country (as is the case with industrial robots) is the market where there is hope for American manufacturing.

If any competitive breakthrough product(s) are to offset Foxconn's plans, and the very-likely roll-out of the other foreign industrial robot makers to parlay Foxconn's actions with new-industry deployments of their own, particularly in Asia, if some new true robotic assistant is developed that is low-cost, lower cost of entry, easy to train, flexible, and safe to work alongside humans, the first to market will create a whole new arena, a whole new marketplace, with new manufacturing jobs, and a whole new product family ushering in the "real" robotic age. That's why everyone is so interested in Heartland Robotics. They are a privately-funded start-up focusing on a large, untapped market with a low cost product family perfectly matched up to the needs of the market. If they can pull it off, there's hope. If not, some other company, somewhere else in the world, will do so and the global SME marketplace will be theirs.

Robots help keep costs down and productivity high. The cost of entry isn't prohibitive but involves changing the mix of labor from skilled to very skilled. They are and will continue to be a staple in the manufacturing arsenal. Further, maintaining a homeland base of manufacturing is important for security, jobs, the balance of trade, and as part of sustaining a middle class. Robots can help, but national leadership can inspire the changes needed for America to play the role it has in the past, and wants for the future... a role which includes an ever-increasing use of robots in all facits of society.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Cultural Differences and the Japanese Nuclear Power Disaster

Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Facility - Before Twin Disasters
How did it come to be that Japan's nuclear power authority didn't have any emergency robots ready to assist with damage and control? Why were they caught unprepared?
In the days after a giant tsunami knocked out Fukushima Daiichi’s cooling system, the prime minister’s office and the Tokyo Electric Power Company, or Tepco, the plant’s operator, wrestled over whether to inject cooling seawater into the reactor buildings to prevent catastrophic meltdowns, and then over how to do it.

With radiation levels too high for workers to approach the reactors, the Japanese authorities floundered. They sent police trucks mounted with water cannons — equipment designed to disperse rioters — to spray water into the reactor buildings. Military helicopters flew over the buildings, dropping water that was scattered off course by strong winds, in a “performance, a kind of circus” that was aimed more at reassuring an increasingly alarmed Japanese population and American government, said Kenichi Matsumoto, an aide to Prime Minister Naoto Kan.

What became clear was that Japan lacked some of the basic hardware to respond to a nuclear crisis and, after initial resistance, had to look abroad for help. For a country proud of its technology, the low point occurred on March 31 when it had to use a 203-foot-long water pump — shipped from China, an export market for Japanese nuclear technology — to inject 90 tons of fresh water into the No. 1 reactor building. But perhaps more than anything else, the absence of one particular technology was deeply puzzling: emergency robots.

“The plant operators said that robots were not needed,” said Hiroyuki Yoshikawa, 77, an engineer and a former president of the University of Tokyo, Japan’s most prestigious academic institution. “Instead, introducing them would inspire fear, they said. That’s why they said that robots couldn’t be introduced.” [NY Times]
There are significant cultural differences between Japan and Western countries, some developed over hundreds of years, some more recent.
The "robot journey" in Japan has been the discovery of fantastic entertainers, tools, and, ultimately, friends in robots. Because of this rich tradition, Japanese are especially able to see robots as something more than mere tools, buckets of bolts, or steel and silicon. They can welcome them as partners in everyday life with surprising ease. [Tim Hornyak, from his book Loving the Machine]
In the present situation two converging themes are influencing decisions on a daily basis: a belief in the safety of nuclear power developed from 50 years of PR, and Japan's centuries old seniority system.
“In Japan, we have something called the ‘safety myth,’” Banri Kaieda, who runs the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which oversees the nuclear industry, said. “It’s a fact that there was an unreasonable overconfidence in the technology of Japan’s nuclear power generation.”

As a result, he said, the nuclear industry’s “thinking about safety had a poor foundation.”

Japan’s government has concentrated its propaganda and educational efforts on creating such national beliefs in the past, most notably during World War II. The push for nuclear power underpinned postwar Japan’s focus on economic growth and its dream of greater energy independence.  [NY Times]
Japan's seniority system often gets in the way of productivity and efficiency. Teachers complain that principals and administrators, having been rewarded their positions based on seniority rather than merit, are often ceremonial leaving the real work for teachers to pick up.

RC Bobcat and Talon from QinetiQ and Packbot by iRobot
In the case of Fukushima, both iRobot and QinetiQ, companies that volunteered equipment to Tepco, instructors found that senior Tepco employees were chosen to be trained to operate the American and British robots yet they were less suited to the task than the 20-year olds who had gamer experience. The remote-controlled PackBot and Talon robots and the RC Bobcat tractors, all used gaming consoles to operate their devices and the senior employees were slow to learn. In a recent Webinar on the issue by Robotic Trends, the trainers found that 20-year olds learned in less than a day while it took the older Tepco employees many days to approach any level of competence.

Tepco is still involved in the containment process and will be for many months. Simultaneous to their activities, and in addition to Japanese investigations, the international nuclear community is evaluating what went wrong and how it might have been handled better for future nuclear power plant "incidents."

International, as well as Japanese, standards broke down. France, with 58 plants in operation, has a robotic emergency response capability yet Japan, with 54, does not.
The Group of Robotics INTervention on Accidents (INTRA), maintains a fleet of robotics machines capable of intervening, in the place of man, in a major nuclear accident, in and around the industrial buildings of its members. It also assures the continuous training of robot pilots within the installations of company members. [Group INTRA website]
The US, with 104 nuclear reactors, doesn't have a robotic response group (like the French one). Each utility has it's own set of procedures and guidelines monitored by the AEC. But the industry does have public relations websites emphasizing the safety of American nuclear power plants.  One site, run by the Nuclear Energy  Institute, uses keywords safe, secure, reliable and responsible with only cursory descriptors of actions and plans that make our reactors safe or secure or reliable or responsible.

Hence the question: does America have it's own 'safety myth' in relation to nuclear power?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Transitioning from Industrial to Service/Personal Robotics

Will big industrial robot makers such as ABB, Fanuc and Kuka, transition and begin making products for the consumer and service markets? I'm beginning to think not. And here are a few of my reasons:

I've been impressed by the possibilities for power companies to reduce costs and expand safety and efficiency by adapting robots for high voltage transmission line maintenance and inspection instead of their present methods. Consequently, I researched and found some interesting Japanese and Canadian robotic solutions - and also an American one scheduled to debut in 2014 - and suggested these three options to the companies that presently perform line inspection and maintenance.  I commented that this was the wave of the future and asked them whether they were going to use them. There was little, if any interest in doing so.

This lack of interest is not unique to the power industry.  When I talked with the big industrial robotic vendors I received the same message when I asked about the possibilities of their producing social and work-place-assistant robots or using open or non-proprietary operating systems and even using non-proprietary devices like an iPad or tablet for programming and training.

The resistance is on many levels: job protection, revenue protection, technology and systems protection, and product protection.  Notice the "protection" in each phrase? That's the main problem.

Bill Clinton, in a recent commencement speech at NYU, said that in the last 30 years companies have come to believe that they have obligations only to their shareholders.
The problem is that if you do that you ignore the other stakeholders. 
That could be why wages have been virtually stagnant for the past 30 years, because the workers are stakeholders. It could be why communities have been unable to undertake economic transformations in many places, because communities are stakeholders. It could be why customers don’t care so much what the source of their purchases are, they’re stakeholders.
He clearly said that the world we live in is too unequal; that the world we live in is unstable; and that the world we live in is unsustainable. [Abstract of Pres. Clinton's commencement address.]

In thinking about what he said and what I heard from the robot executives in relation to using robots instead of humans or helicopters to maintain and inspect power transmission lines. When helicopters are used companies that perform the service charge seven times the estimated cost of using a robot. Thus the profits derived are seriously more than would be derived from using a robot. Said another way, the profits from the sale of just one PacBot system is equal to the profits from the sale of 500 Roombas.

Protective and narrow thinking - as was expressed to me in many forms by the current vendors - is what will prohibit these vendors from transitioning into the different world of consumer/service robotics. That kind of thinking stultifies innovation and thwarts the goals of the corporation to all their stakeholders.

Consumer sales are whimsical, dependent on many variables.  Manufacturing and selling 500 or 5,000 or 5 million consumer products is an entirely different process than selling a single defense contract which rarely if ever ramps up into numbers over 100.

Further, defense, space and security robotics are mostly in the domain of large aerospace companies or spinoff startup companies from university research centers and derive their profits as a fixed percentage of their costs and overhead... a formula that doesn't translate into the commercial sector.

Finally, most service robots involve interactions with humans in human/robot roles entirely different than in a factory setting.

Therefore, I believe that disruptive startup companies will spin out of research facilities and throughout the world of inventors and venture capitalists and provide product solutions to consumer needs that they want to purchase. Further, I believe that the business model for these new companies is entirely different than the model for old-line robotic manufacturers and also the aerospace industry. Consequently, this will be a worldwide phenomena. With my US hat on, it means that the US has a fresh start at an industry that is soon to emerge: small business and personal service robots and vehicles.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Next 7-10 Years of IBM's Watson

Jeopardy! Was Just The Beginning

Alex Trebek, Ken Jennins, Watson and Brad Rutter
Photo courtesy of Jeopardy!
IBM's achievement with their Watson system and software was more than good television:
  • It's a major language processing realization. Computing systems will no longer be limited to responding to simple commands.
  • The data management aspect lends itself to specialization, ie, medical sub-sets, legal data sets, call/support centers databases, etc. John Markoff, in a recent NY Times article on the subject, said "any job that now involves answering questions and conducting commercial transactions by telephone will soon be at risk. It is only necessary to consider how quickly A.T.M.’s displaced human bank tellers to have an idea of what could happen."
  • The language processing is amazing, illuminating, and lets one dream of a future where the promises of human-robot (or for that matter, human-device) interaction and instantaneous translation is really going to happen soon.
  • A staggering amount of horsepower was harnessed to work harmoniously using massively parallel technology on 2,700 processors spread over 90 servers to enable the Jeopardy! win.  Historically, this will advance to smaller devices within a few years. Ray Kurzweil, quoted in The Economist, notes that it was only five years after the massive and hugely expensive Deep Blue beat Mr Kasparov in 1997 that Deep Fritz was able to achieve the same level of performance by combining the power of just eight personal computers. In part, that was because of the inexorable effects of Moore’s Law halving the price/performance of computing every 18 months. It was also due to the vast improvements in pattern-recognition software used to make the crucial tree-pruning decisions that determine successful moves and countermoves in chess. Now that the price/performance of computers has accelerated to a halving every 12 months. Mr Kurzweil expects a single server to do the job of Watson’s 90 servers within seven years—and by a PC within a decade. If cloud computing fulfills its promise, then bursts of Watson-like performance could be available to the public at nominal cost even sooner.
  • And most importantly, right after the Jeopardy! win, IBM announced partnerships with a few hospital groups to provide diagnostic physician assistance using Watson's DeepQA software and data management methods. And their website displays other areas where Watson might be particularly helpful. IBM is bringing Watson to the marketplace.
It's important to keep in mind that inside a computer there is no connection from words to human experience or cognition.  To Watson, words are just tokens. In parsing a question such as those on Jeopardy!, a computer has to decide what's the verb, the subject, the object, the preposition and the object of the preposition. It must remove uncertainty from words with multiple meanings, by taking into account any and all contexts it can recognise. When people talk among themselves, they bring so much contextual awareness that answers become obvious. The computer must use logic to "disambiguate" incoming tokens into choices which can be measured (scored) against alternative choices. And it must do all that within seconds.

What about robots and robotics?

The AI system managing a robot gathers facts through sensors or human input, compares this to stored data, and decides what the information signifies. The system then runs through various possible actions and predicts which action will be most successful.

Some robots also have a limited ability to learn. Learning robots recognize if a certain action achieved a desired result and store that information for the next time it encounters the same situation. Naturally, they can't absorb information like a human but in Japan, roboticists have taught a robot to dance by demonstrating the moves themselves.

It's important to remember that IBM isn't the only AI game in town. There are many companies and research facilities developing and providing AI software, the most visible of which is Google.
IBM 701 Computer
From Wired's Danger Room: Back in 1954, IBM announced that its 701 computer crunched a bit of Russian text into its English equivalent. A Georgetown professor who worked on the project predicted the computerized translation of entire books “five, perhaps three years hence.”

Thus was born a scientific (and sci-fi) drive that’s lasted 57 years, from Star Trek to Babel Fish to Google Translate: instantaneous speech translation. But even though no one’s mastered that yet, the Pentagon’s out-there research branch is asking for even more with its Boundless Operational Language Translation, or BOLT. As outlined in Darpa’s fiscal 2012 budget request. For the low, low starting cost of $15 million, Congress can “enable communication regardless of medium (voice or text), and genre (conversation, chat, or messaging).”  
Not only will BOLT be a universal translator — the creation of which would be a revolutionary human development — but it will “also enable sophisticated search of stored language information and analysis of the information by increasing the capability of machines for deep language comprehension. In other words, a 701 translator that works.
So What's The Holdup?

There are many reasons for the delay in robotic training and interaction with humans - some of which can been seen in the mammoth resources it took IBM to achieve their Watson Jeopardy! victory. You cannot place those resources into a robot nor can you rely on a computer controlling a robot (or series of robots) via a wireless communication channel as they go about their various tasks.

Matthias Scheutz, an Associate Professor of Cognitive Science, Computer Science and Informatics and Director of the Human-Robot Interaction Lab at Tufts University, adds research funding to the equation saying:
The fields of robotics and human-robot interaction are growing, with the highest expected growth rates not in industrial, but service robots. Several countries (Japan, South Korea, the EU, etc.) around the world are heavily investing in service and social robotics. In the US, there are very few funding programs specifically targeted at artificial cognitive systems that would enable complex autonomous service robots. My hope is that this will be changing soon given enormous market potential of this area and the heavy investments other countries are making. To keep the US competitive and to enable, not Watson-like, but more modest, more natural interactions between humans and autonomous robots in natural language, we will need interdisciplinary funding programs that are aimed at developing the right kinds of integrated control architectures for these systems, which we are currently still lacking.
Scheutz goes on to say:
Computing power is obviously a critical component for a lot of AI technology (e.g., algorithms that are data-based and need to be trained on large data sets, or algorithms that have to explore large search spaces in a short amount of time). Equally important is the architecture of an intelligent system, the way in which different components operate and interact. And here is where we have made much less progress compared to the hardware side. Consequently, although the performance of Watson is very impressive and clearly a break-through, from an engineering perspective, it does not yet address the problem of human-like natural language processing as we will need it for robots. And while there will likely be applications in the context of recommender systems in the near future, it is not clear to me how the technology used on Watson can be put on a robot and make it have natural task-based dialogues with humans.
The EU, Japan and Korea have roadmaps which lay out the science that needs to be tackled before effective products can be produced. And they have national direction and public-private funding to make their plans happen. America does not yet have such a plan nor any national direction regarding robotics. And this is a critical holdup.

President Obama, in his State of the Union Speech, specifically excluded robotics when he discussed the need for strategic investment in key areas of innovation. How the President could overlook that not a single sector is devoid of the applications of robotics is one question. Another is to ask whether he is aware that 12 of the 13 major robotic manufacturers selling industrial and manufacturing robots in the US are off-shore companies.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Sputnik II Moment

I was disappointed with the section of President Obama's 2011 State of the Union speech regarding investing in selected new technologies for future growth.

I had hoped he would use the word “robotics” and include the necessity for an American robotics industry in his speech and it is unfortunate that he did neither. That he focused his investment scope to exclude robotics might just be the death knell for the American robotics industry because, without national strategic focus, things will go on as they have… VERY slowly and very dependent on Space and Defense for research dollars.

A thriving robotics industry provides jobs, helps the nation increase efficiency, profitability and productivity and upgrades the mix of workers involved. Yet America doesn't presently have a national robotics agenda. Europe does. Japan does. Korea does. And each of these countries is gaining success and momentum worldwide.

Tom Atwood, editor-in-chief of Robot magazine, recently stated:
Although the government is beginning to wake up and push for an expansion of robotics education in schools with the DARPA-funded FIRE (Furthering Innovation through Robotics Exploration) program at Carnegie Mellon and the NSF-funded DARwIn-OP project at Virginia Tech, these and similar programs, by themselves, are not enough for our country to maintain its competitive technological edge. We need a national robotics policy that is specifically articulated in a clear call to action by our executive branch, and we need backing of such a program by Congress.
Pres. Obama was inspiring in his speech and his directness to the issues of the day, and his reference to a Sputnik II moment was wonderful as he attempted to address the need for American students to become involved in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs. This is a serious issue and a major difference between America and all of the other countries in which robotics flourish: STEM education takes extra dedication, energy, time and persistence which is not happening with American students; in fact there seems to be resistance to pursuing a career in science (except for a career in medicine, or on the business side of math - as a quant - which, even today, still equates to enormously big bucks.) The Sputnik reference was eloquent but, at least for robotics, empty.

Microsoft Kinect - add-on device for Xbox game controller
He missed some great technology examples.  One that I find particularly illuminating is the effect that the technology inside Microsoft’s new Xbox Kinect device has had. Kinect is a controller free gaming and entertainment experience. It enables users to control and interact with the Xbox 360 game system without the need to touch a controller, through a natural user interface using gestures and spoken commands. Not only have sales of Xboxes exploded but so have the applications and uses - and sales - of the cameras and depth-perception software inside the Kinect. iRobot and WillowGarage are using the $50 Kinect innards in lieu of LIDAR range-finder machines costing upwards of $5,000. Check out iRobot’s new AVA concept robot. Hackers and inventors worldwide have been finding new uses for the Kinect that Microsoft didn't even dream of. Now that’s inspiring!

There are many things happening in robotics in America. There's work underway - with some successes thus far - to get an American robotics roadmap funded and implemented and there's been a steady trickle-down effect from the research dollars spent on defense and space by NASA, DARPA and the DoD. Medical robotics are on a tear. There is independent investment as well. In Wisconsin, Indiana, Georgia, Massachusetts and Alabama, state-, corporate- and educationally-sponsored Robotic Centers are springing up to provide training in the programming, repair and maintenance of robots, as well as for research and testing. Alabama's recently opened Robotics Technology Park is a serious $73 million three-pronged endeavor to provide (1) an industry training program where technicians will be trained to work on robotic machinery; (2) a test facility for NASA and the US Army for research and testing of leading edge robotics for defense and space exploration; and (3) a facility to allow start-up companies to build and adapt robots for new industries. Imagine if this kind of state-inspired public-private forethought were done on a national level... now that's a Sputnik II moment.

Alison Diana at InformationWeek just did a piece on 12 Advances in Medical Robotics but failed to note that 2/3 of the vendors were not American.  Eight out of the 12 were Japanese, Korean or European. The ratio of industrial robot providers in America is even worse: although integrators, engineers and consultants tend to be American-owned, the major robot providers (KUKA, ABB, Comau, Denso, Schunk, Motoman, Daihen, Reis, Fanuc) are all foreign-owned. That is also a Sputnik II moment.

English Teaching Robot
In South Korea, robotic guides and docents patrol the Presidential Museum as 70,000 monthly visitors experience an advertisement of the nation’s cutting-edge technologies that made it a global leader in chips, mobile phones, TVs, display panels, and robotics that combine them all. South Korea is into the 5th year of a 10-year $1 billion investment in robotic technologies with a series of national goals endorsed by their President.

An example of how a nationally-directed strategic program works is when a shortage of English teachers compelled the South Korea government to use robotic teachers. They are deploying them in 500 preschools in 2011, and 8,000 preschools and kindergartens by 2013. It helps address the lack of English teachers in rural areas or remote islands. Learning English represents a necessary educational step for competitive South Korean students, and especially those aiming to study abroad at major universities in the U.S. Now that's a Sputnik II moment.

This is what was missing from President Obama's speech: the recognition that part of the underbelly of America's productivity and efficiency is automation and robotics. It's a very necessary industry which needs national direction. Mark Ingebretsen, the new editor of Robotic Trends Business Review,  adds an additional dimension to Pres. Obama’s exclusion of robotics, “the robotics that drive America’s economy and defense will be in the hands of other countries that have spent the early 21st century developing robot technologies.”

President Obama's call for action using the Sputnik II example is moot in relation to robotics without the formulation and acceptance of a roadmap and the establishment of a public-private consortium to implement it fully. A roadmap was presented in May, 2009 and some of it's provisions are slowly making their way through the halls of Congress. But there is no executive leadership thus far. If there were, Pres. Obama's Sputnik II moment would be a true call to action instead of pointless rhetoric.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Big Changes in Robotic Manufacturing

2011 is a pivotal year for industrial and service robots. In fact, we may see the marriage of industrial with service robots to be used as assistants in manufacturing. The recent launches in Europe of pi4-robotics' workerbot and Japan's Motoman's two-armed headless robot, and the anticipated 2011 launch in the U.S. of Heartland Robotics' factory assistant robot are examples of this trend.

Henrik Christensen (Director Robotics and Intelligent Machines, Georgia Institute of Technology) said in a recent ROBOTICA Forum:
In manufacturing only through use of automation can we reduce the need to out-source. Our workers are not going to be more effective in doing manual labor, but with the right tools they can be more effective and the motivation to outsource less pronounced. Companies are starting to realize that once you start an out-sourcing process it may result in all of the process going off-shore. That happened in textiles and apparel and the poster child in the IT industry is the IBM ThinkPad transformation to Lenovo laptops. Also the disk drive industry had a similar move to Singapore.

To be effective, robots have to be lower cost and higher dexterity. We are starting to see this - and the cost of integration is also coming down.
The recently released 2010 robotics industry reports from the International Federation of Robotics said:
Dramatic advances in robotics and automation technologies are even more critical with the next generation of high-value products that rely on embedded computers, advanced sensors and microelectronics requiring micro- and nano-scale assembly, for which labor-intensive manufacturing with [low-skilled] human workers is no longer a viable option.
Here are some quotes from the Heartland Robotics website that are more real than hyperbole:
Today's manufacturing robots are big and stiff, unsafe for people to be around, engineered to be precise and repeatable, not adaptable. Normal workers can't touch them.

Our robots will be intuitive to use, intelligent and highly flexible.  They'll be easy to buy, train, and deploy and will be unbelievably inexpensive.
Similar wording can be found on the pi4-robotics website and Motoman's.

Today's industrial robots are truly expert systems

Lest we forget, industrial robots encapsulate years of translating the skills of craftsmen to the mechanical capabilities of robots.  There's no other way that robots could have replaced their human counterparts were it not for the fact that the robot can do the same task equal to or better than the human.

Industrial robots in car factory
The know-how, where robots mimic human actions in the various aspects of the auto industry, represents decades of accumulated knowledge transfer by veteran craftsmen.

In welding, for example, the finish of welding varies, depending on the kind of metal used, its thickness and the power voltage. Craftsmen adjust the speed of welding by observing how sparks fly to get the best finish. From a story in Asahi:
About 10 years ago, Yasakawa (Motoman) started filming its craftsmen at work, using a high-speed camera to record their hand movements. The accumulated data was programmed into robots to enable them to perform tasks from several thousand options of welding that craftsmen had established over the years.

Because Yaskawa makes and uses robots at its main factory, it enables the company to pass along technical expertise from elders to their juniors.

"You can copy a robot, but not control technology that craftsmen created," said Junji Tsuda, president of Yaskawa. "(Exporting robots) is like shipping the craftsmen themselves."

"Chinese and South Korean makers are less likely to come up with such technology because they are more inclined to want results in the short term," said Akira Yoshino, the engineer-inventor of the lithium-ion battery.
Presently, robots in manufacturing are, except for the auto industry and welding apps, mostly involved in post processing and packaging rather than in the manufacturing process. [This latter point is not to be minimized - in fact, it is a booming area of robotics: picking, packing, packaging, processing, sorting and warehousing.]

But not general manufacturing!

The near-term future will see the gradual appearance of multi-purpose, flexible, easily trainable robots. We are likely to see the bridging between the expert systems of the past and these flexible systems of the future - in manufacturing in 2011.

I see three issues involved:
  1. Robotics for Small and Medium-sized manufacturers and factories (SME's)
  2. National strategies to solve important issues
  3. Training and retraining people for the future
SME's are the life-blood of the middle class and the area of greatest jobs growth.  SME's create new jobs, contribute to the community, and produce needed products.

Yaskawa Motoman
Two-armed Factory Robot
A few years ago, in Europe, the EU recognized the need to support SME businesses with improved robotics - robotics that were easily trainable, safe to work alongside, relatively inexpensive and flexible enough to handle all sorts of ad hoc tasks in any quantity. The EU invested in the development of SME robots because they felt that without their investment production efficiencies couldn't be maintained and more and more manufacturing would move offshore. The SME project ended early in 2009 and the consortium members quickly brought products to market that address the needs of SME's. These include two-armed robots, safety sensors and train-by-example programming. The EU also invested in the PiSa Project which had a similar goal.  The pi4-robotics "workerbot" mentioned above is the result of that effort. Motoman's two-armed robot is an outgrowth of the SME project and is presently replacing older robots in the Mercedes factories.

America doesn't have a national robotics agenda (roadmap) just yet even though there is effort in that direction. Congress was presented with a roadmap in May, 2009. There has been some movement from the Obama Administration's Office of Science and Technology Policy including some SBA funding and some targeted areas of robotic development funding opportunities from five different government agencies. But robotics are not yet on the national agenda - there's no U.S. Robotics Initiative as there is for other areas of development.

Nor is there a real training and retraining mechanism for keeping up with the changing technological landscape. Instead, we fear losing jobs rather than understanding that we will instead change the mix of workers (as is generally the case when robots enter the picture).  Yes we have FIRST programs, and interesting robo-competitions all oriented to interest students in STEM education. But we are very lax in our science education overall and really don't have a national reeducation program for our workforce.

What America has is an entrepreneurial system of funding (which I described back in January ("Financing the Strawberry Project")) supplemented by irregular special purposes like national defense (DARPA), homeland security and space exploration. If an inventor/business has a good enough idea to get past the angel investors and on to the real VCs, he/she will get enough money to get it off the ground.  It's part salesmanship, part product, and timing, rather than an outgrowth of a national agenda to help society.

It's great to wish Heartland Robotics well but it isn't right that they are America's only knight in shining armor (if it turns out that they really are). Also, if they are successful they will be contributing to the jobs issue by changing the mix of workers from low-skilled to highly skilled. Without a retraining program in place, there will likely be serious repercussions, a lot of bad press, and slowdowns.

Bill Gates, Samsung, the government of South Korea, Toyota, Ray Kurzweil and many others are predicting that there will be a robot in our homes, companies and cars in this decade.  It truly is a political issue - one of technological complexity, national importance and economic strategy - to make sure that we don't derail ourselves with pettiness, greed, apathy and inaction.