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Friday, August 29, 2014

From Promat 2013: The Robotics Impact on Economic Growth with Dr. Henrik Christensen

Henrik ChristensenWe’re here in the frozen Windy City for the premiere automation and material handling show in one. Promat 2013 and Automate 2013 are open for business on a one-pass, two-show opportunity at McCormick Place, in Chicago, and the trade floor is already buzzing with activity as exhibitors exhibit and buyers buy the exciting new automation, robotics and material handling technologies.

Before show sponsor Materials Handling Industry (MHI) could cut the ribbon to open the show, Dr. Henrik Christensen (pictured) presented the first keynote of the week, discussing The Impact of Robotics on Economic Growth. Dr. Christensen is the KUKA Chair of Robotics at the College of Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the director of the Center for Robotics and Intelligent Machines.

Entering the stage after a pre-show round of Kraftwerk-like music, Christensen started his talk by pointing out the “lazy journalism” in mainstream sources covering robotics and new technology. Every week you can see a Luddite article about a new brand or series of robots or machines, often presented as a threat to jobs or even safety, he said. Christensen pooh-poohed these reports, explaining that decision-makers as high as those in Congress often pick up their robotics “facts” from these faulty news stories.

Christensen, who is working with lawmakers on the White House National Robotics Initiative, explained that new technologies are actually helpful to maintaining a productive and educated workforce, but challenges remain when it comes to integrating new technology into mainstream American manufacturing.

American workforce productivity has steadily risen over the past several years and is quite high when compared to other countries, such as Germany and Japan. Additionally, workforce salary has inclined on a low gradient, resulting in average salaries comparable with those in other countries. Essentially, doing business in the U.S. now means you can pay less for more.

However, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) make up the majority of American manufacturing businesses. SMEs typically do not have the budgets to invest in important business activities, namely R&D, new technology acquisition and workforce training. In developing the National Robotics Initiative, Christensen and his colleagues realized that the typical barriers to entry — cost, installation, training/education and a “wait-and-see” attitude — are even more important when it comes to introducing new robotics technology to SMEs.

Robotics and automation technology can provide a lot of the efficiency, cost and productivity benefits that SMEs seek, but the barriers to entry compromise the ease of doing so. How can these gaps be overcome?

Christensen broke down the costs of adopting robotics for a typical SME:

  • Basic robot system: 20 to 30 percent of cost
  • Auxiliary hardware (cabling, wires, etc): 20 to 30 percent
  • Software: 40 to 60 percent of cost

That last piece of the puzzle could be the key to standardizing robotics for typical SME manufacturers.

Robotics and automation developers have been active in producing lower-cost technology, manufacturing the physical pieces at more competitive rates. Christensen highlighted the Baxter from Rethink Robotics, a plug-and-play set of robotic arms that boasts a wide variety of high-end features for $22,000 — relatively inexpensive for robotic equipment.

However, software to run robotics has become increasingly proprietary, meaning robots often do not have the capability to function in conjunction with other robots. This presents more investments in training workers on different software and working with programmers to make machines work together.

However, Christensen noted several initiatives to standardized robotics controls and programming language, including The Robot Operating Systems ROS Industrial, the Point Cloud Library, OpenCV and Integrated Controllers. Additionally, programs like Teach-In, where robots can “learn” new actions and operations by “doing,” with the help of an instructor, are minimizing this problem.

Another problem involves robotics downtime. Manufacturers are used to machine tools that can operate with little downtime, and the perception of robotics (and, sometimes, the reality) is that they run into problems and need correction often. As Christensen said, if you can’t achieve a success rate of only 1 problem in every 4,000 operations, your robot isn’t good enough.

He continued to demonstrate that 100 percent availability is possible, if slightly low-tech. Many robotic systems being marketed to hospitals are advertised as providing 100 percent availability. The robot works on its own programming 99.9 percent of the time, but when it gets into trouble, such as navigating into a corner it can’t get out of, it notifies a call center in Pittsburgh, where an operator takes over with a joystick and sets the robot right. To an observer at the hospital, wherever it is in the world, the robot appears to have righted itself on its own.

Christensen closed his presentation by noting that the issues he discussed are solvable. He cited problems that existed as recently as 10 years ago, such as “big picking” by robots, that are now completely solved. Streamlining automation and robotics in supply chain management can, and will, make America more competitive in the long run, he said.


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