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american robotics

by   -   August 6, 2012
By Frank Tobe, Editor/Publisher, The Robot Report


The Georgia Institute of Technology lays on a beautiful 400 acre campus and is a university committed to improving the human condition through advanced science and technology. It also has campuses in France, Singapore, Shanghai, Peking, Costa Rica and Ireland. With a US faculty of 1,100, a support staff of 4,500, and 21,000 students – of which 4,000 are foreign students – GA Tech ranks #7 in the nation for best public universities (U.S. News & World Report) and #1 for manufacturing research. 55% of GA Tech revenue comes from research dollars; only 20% from tuition. NOTE: Most of the foreign students are Asian and from China and also that GA Tech’s foreign student population is 220% higher than any other university in Georgia .

The Obama Administration’s PCAST (President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology) recently released its plan to produce 1 million additional college graduates with degrees in STEM this decade. This follows another plan to train 100,000 science and math teachers by 2020. Noble goals, but suffering in the budget approval process, with the outcome unknown. Yet the problem is real and topical:

  • 80% of jobs in the next decade will require math and science skills (NSF)
  • Only 15% of American students will graduate with STEM degrees (US Bureau of Labor Statistics)
  • Jobs involving robotics feature real-world challenges solved by research, critical thinking, construction, teamwork, and imagination (US FIRST)

The business of robotics in America (and around the world) centers around the universities that teach the subject and provide the research and resources. Clusters of spin-off businesses, investors and consultants flourish nearby and add commercial and entrepreneurial energy to the mix. Pittsburgh, Boston, the Bay Area (San Francisco and the Silicon Valley), and Atlanta are the major clusters in America and there are plenty of governmental, institutional, angel and venture capital entities and individuals with ties into those areas. 

I’ve been fortunate to have visited all of these major technology campuses which are at the center of these clusters: Carnegie Mellon, MIT, Harvard, Stanford, UC Berkeley and Georgia Tech. My most recent trip was to a DARPA presentation at GA Tech
Aerial view of GA Tech with downtown Atlanta in the background.

Georgia Tech focuses on practical innovation for society and industry – or as they say, GA Tech is all about creating value – and this can be seen in more than a dozen focused labs crossing three departmental boundaries: The College of Computing, College of Engineering and the Georgia Tech Research Institute**, all of which feed faculty, researchers, research funding and students into the business side of robotics.

  • mechatronics
  • agricultural technology
  • biomedical imaging, neuro-engineering and bio-robotics
  • perception and vision systems
  • construction and architecture
  • health care and medical robotics
  • human-robot interaction
  • embedded systems
  • mobility and navigation systems
  • unmanned aerial, underwater and ground vehicles
  • simulation

Henrik Christensen is the director of Georgia Tech’s Robotics and Intelligent Machines Center and a Distinguished Professor of Computing. Christensen holds the KUKA Chair in Robotics. He was the founding chairman of the EU network of excellence in robotics – EURON (1999-2006), and remains a science advisor to the European Commission, as well as several international companies.

Christensen says of GA Tech’s track record in robotics:

GT has a very active incubator for creation of new companies. More than 340 companies have been spun-out and we have a new educational program to mentor students and faculty to easily spin-out companies. In terms of robotics and perception there has been a number of successes. DVT – by a retired GA Tech professor – was sold to Cognex a few years ago for $140 million and we have several other companies such as ShapeStart, Guided Systems, CAMotion, Qcept, … that have been successfully spun-out. On the average 2-3 robotics related companies are created every year. So overall the climate is very stimulating for creation of spin-off companies. We have ATDC as the incubator for new companies, EI² is our enterprise innovation institute and finally MEP is the manufacturing extension partnership for working with local companies.

One of Henrik’s principle tasks since his arrival at GA Tech has been in the development, dissemination and followup of a U.S. Roadmap for Robotics which has been gaining momentum since its initial presentation to Congress in 2009. Portions of that roadmap were included in President Obama’s AMP Initiative (Advanced Manufacturing Partnership). $70 million was allocated to focus on enabling new abilities for factory workers, health care providers, soldiers, surgeons and astronauts to carry out key hard-to-do tasks with co-robots small, safe, easily trainable and flexible lightweight helper robots.

As an interesting aside, the Danish Technological Institute (DTI), a government-sponsored stimulus program to develop and apply robot technologies to Danish industry and society, has established a US subsidiary located in the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC) to search for and coordinate research projects and start-ups beneficial to Danish interests and using the full research resources of GA Tech. Their goal for their new US subsidiary is for it to become the equivalent of the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), but of and for Danish robotic interests.

[** The GA Tech Research Institute (GTRI) is the applied research arm of GA Tech and received $300 million in research funding last year alone. It has 1,600 employees of which 795 are faculty at GA Tech.]

by   -   February 27, 2012
Pres. Obama, speaking at Carnegie Mellon University, June 24, 2011

“Today, I’m calling for all of us to come together- private sector, industry, universities, and the government – to spark a renaissance in American manufacturing and help our manufacturers develop the cutting-edge tools they need to compete with anyone in the world With these key investments, we can ensure that the United States remains a nation that ‘invents it here and manufactures it here’ and creates high-quality, good paying jobs for American workers.”

by   -   February 27, 2012
By Frank Tobe, editor/publisher, The Robot Report

Pres. Obama, speaking at Carnegie Mellon University, June 24, 2011

“Today, I’m calling for all of us to come together- private sector, industry, universities, and the government – to spark a renaissance in American manufacturing and help our manufacturers develop the cutting-edge tools they need to compete with anyone in the world With these key investments, we can ensure that the United States remains a nation that ‘invents it here and manufactures it here’ and creates high-quality, good paying jobs for American workers.”

Noble words spoken to a focused audience. But there is much confusion about why manufacturing is important, and even more confusion as to how robots – which displace workers – are necessary for America to retain it’s competitive edge and manufacturing prowess.

The auto industry is a big user of robots and also a big employer. The extent of its collapse played havoc with communities all over the country where laid-off employees drained the coffers of unemployment insurance and didn’t contribute taxes to the community from their wages and purchases. Aside from the pain of the situation and the myriad ways that it affected the people in those communities, the broad view shows how interrelated we all are to manufacturing – and to the auto industry.

The confusion and obfuscation from politicians has been constantly in the news. Since 2008, when President Bush approved a $17.4 billion auto bailout, the first of many loans that trailed into the Obama Administration, pundits and politicians have derided it, ridiculed it, and Mitt Romney mildly labeled it as “[the] wrong way to go” (without ever suggesting the right way).

Manufacturing is a critical component to the health of a country’s overall economy. The most clear example of why this is is the trickle down effect that happens when a 3rd shift is added to an auto plant.

When automakers add overnight production lines, many companies, communities and individuals benefit. This is significant because at the lowest point of the economic crisis, most auto plants reduced staff and ran just a single shift; second shifts returned throughout 2011 and recently third shifts have begun. GM, for example, is adding more than 4,300 3rd shift jobs in four states.

The trickle down effect is described in a Bloomberg Businessweek article: A third shift typically requires about 1,000 autoworkers and creates about 7,850 spinoff jobs (7.85:1) ranging from police and fire workers to construction, retail, and restaurant employees. A night shift added at a GM factory also adds night shifts at childcare centers, cafes, bars and dry cleaners. Other service businesses stay open longer hours as do dentists and other professional services. Wages and taxes flow into the community from all these new workers. Sixty percent of spinoff jobs occur within a 60-mile radius of the factory where the new workers are employed.

Headlines Trumpet Big Jobs Gains by Deploying Robots

In a press release picked up by all the major news media, the International Federation of Robotics predicted that robots will contribute 1 million new jobs in this decade and will save another 2 million jobs from going offshore. Their commissioned study reported that:

In world terms, three to five million of jobs would not exist if automation and robotics had not been developed to enable cost effective production of millions of electronic products, from phones to playstations. 

Other headlines exclaim that robot sales in 2011 exceeded all expectations and that investment in robot installations surged globally in 2011 to 150,000 units sold – a year-over-year growth of 30%. According to WANTED Analytics, a real-time talent analytics site, there were over 2,100 U.S. job ads for robotics skills in January, 2012, a 44% year-over-year growth rate from 2011.


What are the figures for robotics? What happens when a robot is deployed in a factory?

From a presentation analyzing the Metra Martech Study
by Mike Wilson, Chairman of the British Automation & Robotics Assoc.

In a recent study commissioned by the International Federation of Robotics, the ratio for job creation was determined to be 3.6 for every robot deployed.

Jobs are created at the robot manufacturer’s site, at the factory where the robot is deployed, and also at companies that install, configure and maintain the robots.

At the site where the robot is deployed, even though some jobs are replaced by robots, many jobs are preserved from moving to lower cost labor factories offshore. There is much evidence proving that with more robots, fewer jobs are lost. That’s why Germany, with it’s hourly rates almost 50% greater than in the US, has remained competitive: they have twice as many robots per employee as do the Americans. There are also ancillary jobs created at educational institutions that teach robotics, at robot component suppliers, and at engineering and consulting companies that provide integration services and equipment.

The IFR Metra Martech study showed that 300,000 workers are directly involved in the manufacture and operation of robots and an additional 3 million jobs were created in factories where accuracy and consistency could not be achieved without robots; and another 300,000 jobs were created where poor working conditions were overcome by the use of robots — 3.6 million total. Most of these workers are in the electronics (1.2 million) and automotive (1.5 million) industries. Thus the Metra Martech study is suggesting a ratio of 3.6:1 based on the 1.15 million industrial robots presently at work around the world.

The study goes on to suggest that an additional 2-3 million jobs were created in situations where employment would be wiped out if manufacturing costs were not reduced [i.e. saving jobs rather than adding to employment]. This is a western industry problem, the problem of moving jobs offshore, caused in the past 20-30 years by the growth of industries in the low cost countries, particularly China and India. The report also adds another 3-5 million jobs created downstream by new products and services (jobs in the form of design, engineering, distribution, handling, marketing, sales, etc.) that wouldn’t happen without the use of robots. It’s a little far-fetched to add these two figures to the previous ratio but, if we did, then the ratio would be 8.4:1, a figure that is closer to the ratio in the auto industry (7.8:1) described above.

Projections for this decade in industrial robotics

In the next few years, as the cost of sensors and lightweight robots become more affordable and artificial intelligence enables robots to be more intuitive and trainable, the marketplace of industrial robot users will increase significantly. SME’s – Small and Medium Enterprises – companies with less than 250 employees – will be able to acquire, train and quickly utilize portable robots to help them become competitive in the global marketplace by enhancing productivity with robots.

Also in the next few years, the use of industrial robots in Asia will change the number of robots in use dramatically. Foxconn, the component manufacturer and electronics assembler, recently began a program to build and install 1 million robots by 2015. If achieved, that will almost double the world’s industrial robot population.

Beneficiaries and stakeholders of industrial robotics

  • Investors and risk takers who want a fair and stable return on their investment.
  • Those who make the robots want to work in a thriving industry with lively peers, good benefits and the promise of job stability.
  • Workers that make the components and ancillary products or provide engineering and integration.
  • Factory owners, by deploying robots, want to reduce waste, maximize resources, provide a better and safer workplace for their workers, and maximize efficiency and productivity to stay competitive in the global marketplace.
  • Factory workers who, through the use of robotics, no longer need to toil in dull, dirty or dangerous situations.
  • Factory owners also want to keep their factories nearby for control, to foster goodwill, and to be near a willing resource pool in and from the community.
  • Communities surrounding factories where taxes and wages spent not only contribute to the wellbeing of people in the area but also add income to the local governments (in the form of sales, income and property taxes) letting them invest in the infrastructure that makes everything work.

Bill Clinton, in a recent commencement speech at NYU, said that in the last 30 years:

Companies have come to operate as if 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 workers are stakeholders and they’ve been ignored. It could be why communities have been unable to undertake economic transformations in many places, because communities are stakeholders and they’ve been ignored. It could be why customers don’t care so much what the source of their purchases are, they’re also stakeholders. and they’ve been ignored. [Transcription from video of Pres. Clinton’s commencement address at NYU, 2011.]

A noble sentiment on which to end this article but one that can be achieved if we understand that we are all in this together we are all stakeholders and beneficiaries.

by   -   January 30, 2012

China’s economic miracle has lifted countless millions of supremely poor people out of poverty. But this progress has come at a price. The Apple Corporation’s experience in manufacturing its popular iPhones, iPods and iPads in China – recently described in the N.Y. Times – has subjected many of those making Apple products to unsafe and unfair working conditions.

Apple has been good for China. It has provided hundreds of thousands of jobs for the 300 to 400 million Chinese anxious to leave their rural, impoverished existence and move to a city where they can get a paying job. When these migrant workers get that job they send home 30-50% of their earnings, and then they and their families back home buy, amongst other things, electronic consumer products like cellphones, smartphones and iPods.

Many of these jobs have been created by the Apple phenomenon whereby Apple keeps making trend-setting products through new and novel uses of technological achievement.

People want to buy their iPhones and iPads. Apple just had it’s biggest ever quarter: 37M iPhones, 15M iPads, $46 billion revenue. Plus, as the economy has started to improve, people have more disposable income and are willing to spend even more for Apple products – 60% of which are manufactured and assembled in China, much of that by one large contract manufacturer: Foxconn.

Foxconn – whose parent company is Hon Hai Precision Electronics, a publicly traded Taiwanese company (TPE:2317) – is the hub in the center of this wheel of motion. It is in their factories in China where some of the components are built and much of the final assembly takes place. As recently reported by the New York Times, CBS, NPR, various watchdog groups and even an off-Broadway play, these factories are havens for worker mistreatment, suicides, unsafe conditions, low pay, and even child labor.

Suicides reached a peak in 2010 and Foxconn implemented solutions, including protective barriers, hotlines and counseling to help prevent further incidents. No suicides were reported in 2011.

Unsafe factory conditions, particularly working with toxins (polishing resins and cleaners) and dusts from metal shavings and other materials were cited as another example. Two serious explosions involving improperly ventilated aluminum shavings occurred in 2011 killing 20 and injuring 50. Subsequently, better ventilation systems and the replacement of workers with robotic polishing, sanding and spraying machines is beginning to take place.

Pay has raced to keep up with discontent and has risen from $0.25 per hour to $0.50 and then $1.00 and now, in many cases, $2.00 per hour. But in this excerpt from a report by a labor rights group, China Labor Watch, one can see the underlying problems:

The minimum wage in many factories does not meet the living costs of its workers. Workers cannot earn a living wage from normal working hours alone, and must work excessive overtime hours in order to earn enough money to survive. At one factory [not Foxconn] for example, workers’ minimum monthly wage was $138 in October 2010. There was a $6 deduction for dormitory accommodations, a $40.50 deduction for food and utilities fees, and a $15.30 deduction for social insurance, which left $76.20. If workers have other expenses or financial responsibilities, such as vocational classes or financial support of their parents (one of the main reasons migrant workers seek work in cities), it would be impossible to meet their living costs with only $76.20. In this situation, workers find themselves with no other option but to work excessive overtime. 

Furthermore, many factories require workers to complete a fixed term of employment before they become eligible for a salary increase. Some factories required workers to complete at least a three month probation period and an additional three month evaluation before becoming eligible for a salary increase. Other factories require a year or longer before workers are eligible for an annual bonus. The difficulty, lengthy terms, and sometimes unpredictability involved in gaining a salary increase and bonus further reinforces workers’ dependence on overtime in order to earn a living wage.

Interviews by the press and various workers rights groups indicate that the main form of discontent is pressure and punishment from long hours at monotonous but intricate work in less than ergonomically friendly postures. 60-72 hour  6-day work weeks are the norm. The pressure comes from the demands to produce more, work more and complain less with punishment for infringements meted out in the form of financial fines, push-ups, public humiliation and attitudinal retraining classes.

Crowded dormitories, cafeterias, long and regimented lines, low pay and condescending contracts, have all contributed to a high turnover — 20-30% at last report. This perpetuates the cycle of employing unskilled migrants, training them in factory work, housing them, and getting them onto the factory floor and assembly line as quickly as possible.

Apple CEO Tim Cook was outraged at the N.Y. Times. Two recent stories in the N.Y. Times were followed by pieces on NPR and CBS: (1) In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad and (2) How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work. He considered the articles to be an offensive pseudo exposé. In an internal e-mail message to select Apple employes, Cook wrote:

We care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain. Any accident is deeply troubling and any issue with working conditions is cause for concern. Any suggestion that we don’t care is patently false and offensive to us. As you know better than anyone, accusations like these are contrary to our values. It’s not who we are. 

For the many hundreds of you who are based at our suppliers’ manufacturing sites around the world, or spend long stretches working there away from your families, I know you are as outraged by this as I am.

Foxconn, like many of the other suppliers, has denied many of the accusations and responded to periodic audits by saying that they’ve made or are implementing the legal changes suggested.

To be fair, one must keep in mind that China’s internal labor laws are newly emerging and are different from ours – their minimum age and wage are different too. Their management style is significantly different as well.

The N.Y Times articles failed to note what may be Foxconn’s most important long-term remedy to problems with its workforce: its plans to deploy one million robots. Foxconn appears to actually be ahead of the news cycle in this instance. Early in 2010 they realized that there would be increased demand for their products and services – particularly Apple products – and that they just couldn’t handle more workers. Instead, they decided to deploy 1 million robots as part of their solution. Mid-2011 they launched an R&D facility and robot manufacturing factory in Taiwan to design, develop and produce those 1 million factory robots. Recently they confirmed their intentions to replace but not necessarily lay off 500,000 workers with those 1 million robots thereby moving those workers up the skill-level ladder to more experienced and higher paying jobs.

By any reasonable definition of product liability law, Apple products are Apple’s products regardless of whether Apple subcontracts some or much of the effort. Apple is liable for any product failures that injure buyers. Consequently Apple is responsible for the actions of their suppliers to the extent that they are working on Apple’s products. Thus it comes down to this: what can and should Apple and other companies do when their sub-contractors are not holding to acceptable Western standards?

Here are my two suggestions:

  1. Apple could insist that dull, dirty and dangerous tasks be automated with robotics and other processes that eliminate these jobs and, more importantly, reduce the areas where injury and discontent are likely to occur.
  2. The N.Y. Times articles implied that Apple monitors its contractors’ costs and squeezes their profit margins to the lowest level possible and, when that happens, it becomes a major factor in these contractors subjecting their employees to unsafe and unfair working conditions in order to meet Apple’s price. If, on the other hand, Apple provided additional profits to their suppliers but stipulated that those profits be passed down to their workers in the form of additional funds for safety, better work-hours, automation and higher pay, everyone would benefit and the Apple culture would be preserved. Some might argue that this solution doesn’t address the competitive pressures of the marketplace. Apple’s recent quarterly 28% net profit results – and their $92 billion cash hoard – suggest that, regardless of market pressures, Apple does have some ability to share their profits where they will do the most good for long-term growth, the welfare of their sub-contract workers, shareholder value, AND global public relations.
And a solution from the folks at Change.org – a petition to Apple to protect workers making iPhones in Chinese factories. As of this posting there are already 157,000 signatures!
by   -   January 30, 2012

China’s economic miracle has lifted countless millions of supremely poor people out of poverty. But this progress has come at a price. The Apple Corporation’s experience in manufacturing its popular iPhones, iPods and iPads in China – recently described in the N.Y. Times – has subjected many of those making Apple products to unsafe and unfair working conditions.



Using Natural Language in Human-Robot Collaboration
November 11, 2019


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