Thoughts about RoboBusiness 2012

19 February 2013

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I’ve read a wide range of reports and single-topic reviews about the presentations and about some of the exhibitors at last November’s RoboBusiness Leadership Summit held in Pittsburgh. I didn’t feel that any of those reports truly captured what I saw and thought. I was there for the whole thing. So what did I see and what do I think? What stuck in my mind?

First, I’m appreciative for having been able to attend RoboBusiness. The get-together of 400 souls with a common interest in the business of robotics was certainly a good place to meet people, many of whom I’ve only corresponded with. Many came up to me after seeing my name tag and were very glowing in their comments about my two websites (The Robot Report and it’s blog Everything-Robotic). That was fun, somewhat embarrassing, yet nice to hear.

But back to RoboBusiness — the depth of content left something to be desired. As did the constant schedule of short-duration presentations and events — they left no time to mingle, chat privately, have chance encounters — without missing something (in case there was something to miss), and have dinner(s).

Dan Kara, CEO Electra Studios

Dan Kara’s keynote presentation – and his speaker/topic introductions throughout the conference – were more informative than any of the presentations themselves.  Dan talks fast and but his words are clear. He can cover a lot of territory in a short period all the while keeping people’s attention. Dan was the previous CEO of RoboBusiness but has moved on to found a start-up (Electra Studios) providing educational and research robotics products and services integrated with new-tech media tutorials and instructional guides (all presently in stealth mode).

I think the Giant Eagle Distribution Center field trip first thing on day one started me off somewhat jaded. It was a terrible showcase for Seegrid‘s robots, the sponsor of the tour. The robots appeared to need time-consuming manual entry (as well as barcoded data) to get started. Then, after the robotic lifts took the pallets to where they were to be stored, they just dropped them off; they didn’t put them away. A human worker, driving a radio-dispatched forklift, had to do that. Each unmanned drop-off saved a minute and a half of a lift operator’s time but it probably cost that in setup time.

Seegrid’s vision-guided pallet truck

Although Seegrid had four robots at the center, two were out of sight, one was idle, and the other took a very long time to instruct it about what it had aboard and where it was to go with its load. Yet all the while there were 30-year old high-bay robotic lifts that were working away picking up and storing skids of materials in 700′ long aisles and 50′ floor-to-ceiling racks. Both old and new tech were shown and the employes preferred the old — I asked them and that’s what they said. I’m a fan of Seegrid; they have some very innovative vision-guided driverless industrial-grade pallet trucks and tractors. But, at the present time, they don’t lift their load up to put it away in a rack – a temporary but serious drawback. I’ve heard rumors that Seegrid is planning to divest itself of the construction of the lifts, tugs and tractors and leave that to Raymond, a long-established global provider of lift trucks, and forklifts, and focus instead on their guidance and material handling systems. Great idea if the rumors are true. A win-win for both companies.

RoboBusiness 2012 seemed somewhat like that warehouse tour and also like the political debates of the 2012 election cycle (without the spirited rhetoric): a bit shallow with important topics either glossed over or missed entirely.

Mobi Mobil Robot
by Bossa Nova Robotics

Bossa Nova Robotics‘ ballbot mobile platform Mobi launch was heavily featured at the conference when it really shouldn’t have been given that much attention. But hey, they were a paying sponsor and it was a neat presentation with a sleek and stylish ball-bot. As I see it, BN Robotics is attempting to do what iRobot, Adept and other mobile robot platform builders are already doing: providing a platform and hoping that buyers will have mobile applications which they can make work on their mobile platform. What we saw was BN’s fundraising pitch; not really their business plan. BN is trying to use a CMU patent to product engineer it down to a consumer product – a feat that they are good at doing. This iteration of the ballbot platform – for sale to academics – is an attempt to make money while trying to find a more commercial niche that can make their company profitable. Selling the platform for $20,000 is ridiculously high. Many companies have far better mobile bases for similar or less cost. The ballbot concept for home use is temporarily flawed and needs more development time. For their presentation at RoboBusiness they were required to invent and deploy a kick-stand emergency shut-off, a klunky but regulation-satisfying solution. When the folks at BN told me about their new ballbot platform, the idea was that they could provide the platform for $300. That price point would enable problem solvers to experiment with BN’s platform and somebody else’s arm(s) because the platform cost would be insignificant. When they hit that price point their Mobi mobile robot will be an exciting addition to the robotics industry. From Bossa Nova’s point of view it was a successful presentation, conference and result. They’ve sold out their production capability for the year!

Aldo Zini, CEO, Aethon
and John Krolicki, VP, University
of Pittsburgh Medical Center

User experience is the missing element in many robotic start-up companies. I’m not referring to the sophistication built into the hardware or software; I’m talking about the user finding value and making use of that value in his daily work. At RoboBusiness much of the talk was from the perspective of the robot developer; not the robot user. One exception was the talk by John Krolicki, the VP of Facilities and Support Services, at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center describing the successful use of the Aethon TUGs, and the presentation on the subject by Aethon CEO Aldo Zini. This, to me, is what the business of robotics is all about: applying technology to solve real problems – and using the metrics of the business involved to attest to its validity and value. Thus Krolicki was the best guest speaker for the audience. He showed, using metrics relevant to his operations, that Aethon’s TUGs and MedEx systems effected good results for the hospital.

Aethon’s line of TUG mobile robots

Aethon has received much press over recent months including a spot on CBS News 60-Minutes. Their revenue has surged and, in 2012, they deployed 77 TUG robots which have made 84,000 deliveries and traveled 17,000 miles doing so.

Perhaps my disappointment at RoboBusiness was that Krolicki’s and Zini’s presentations, and the whole afternoon spent on Quality of Life Robotics, were the exceptions and not the norm for the conference.

Which type of sessions do robotic business leaders want to attend? It seems to me they weren’t asked that question; rather, the sponsors dictated the agenda. Which brings up the question whether RoboBusiness is there to sell exhibition space and newsletter subscriptions or inform; to have brief presentations about robotic products or about real-world needs that can be solved with robotics; to advertise sizzle and magic or stick to the title of the conference: Leadership Summit.

The majority of the sessions left me wondering. The sponsors appeared to be the answer. The financial crisis is over and EH Publishing, the parent company to RoboBusiness, is expanding their events and subscription magazine, a weekly online report costing $1,000 per year.

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Frank Tobe is the owner and publisher of The Robot Report, and is also a panel member for Robohub's Robotics by Invitation series.
Frank Tobe is the owner and publisher of The Robot Report, and is also a panel member for Robohub's Robotics by Invitation series.

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