Sunday, September 11, 2016

Robots for Social Good

News stories that portray robots as “villains” often get much publicity by creating fear and panic among the general public. For example, as a result of recent high profile news stories, many people are beginning to view robots (and automation technologies in general) as a major threat to their jobs and financial well-being. The widespread availability of drones —I consider drones as a type of robot-- is raising serious questions about their roles in spying on the unsuspecting pubic and the loss of privacy. Concerns about the dangers of weaponized robots that could intentionally or accidentally kill human beings have been raised at several international forums. Robots equipped with advanced artificial intelligence are beginning to raise alarm that self-learning robots might lead to a doomsday scenario by subjugating the human race. I find all this negative publicity highly one-sided and a recipe for a Robophobia epidemic. We really need to pay attention to the positive side of the rise-of-robots story to get an accurate assessment of the situation.

A large number of people are working on applications of robots that focus on the social good. I want to use this post to highlight this aspect of robots. Here are a few representative examples:
  • Robots are expected to significantly improve agriculture practice by monitoring crops constantly and using water, fertilizers, and pesticides more precisely. This emerging area is called precision agriculture and can significantly conserve water and reduce the use of fertilizers and pesticides to make our farms more eco-friendly. 
  • Robots are being used to monitor wildlife population and curb poaching of endangered animals by more effectively mobilizing limited law enforcement agents and gathering evidence for prosecution. 
  • The next generation prosthetics is is expected to be based on advances in robotics and will help people with disabilities in gaining independence and living a more productive life. 
  • Robots will enable elderly people to live in their own homes with dignity and hence significantly improve their quality of life. 
  • Robots can bring high quality healthcare to remote regions through tele-robotics concepts. This is expected to improve access to healthcare and control outbreaks of deadly diseases. 
  • Robots are showing potential for use in behavior therapy for autism spectrum disorders. 
  • Human-safe robots will help manufacturing workers to increase their productivity and reducing the chances of workplace injuries. This can be used to grow new businesses and maintain high paying jobs in the manufacturing sector. 
  • Driverless cars are expected to significantly reduce transportation fatalities caused by human errors. This will also make personal transportation accessible to people who cannot drive due to disabilities or declining abilities.
  • Robots can be used to deliver humanitarian aid to regions that become inaccessible due to natural disasters. 
  • Robots have emerged as invaluable tools in K-12 STEM education. FIRST Robotics continues to grow, gain momentum and inspire millions of young people worldwide.
I view robots simply as tools to augment human abilities. Like any other major technological advance, robots can be used by some humans to harm other humans. However, the potential of robots to enable humans to do social good far outweighs this risk.

Monday, May 30, 2016

How many jobs can a fully automated factory create?

I am in favor of decreasing physical labor through automation on factory floors in the US. I consider this the only viable strategy for improving the employment picture in the manufacturing sector in the US.

Some people hear this and start doubting my ability to do simple arithmetic. Their perspective is that automation kills manufacturing jobs and hence it is to be avoided if we want to boost employment numbers in the manufacturing sector.
 
This blog post tries to explain how automation creates high paying service sector jobs. As a thought experiment, imagine a factory that is fully automated --- no human contributes to any physical activity needed to transform the raw material into finished products. It is highly unlikely that a factory would be of any practical value. The presence of humans provides tremendous flexibility in manufacturing operations. However, for the sake of argument, let us assume that such a factory exist. Would such a factory be useful to the community where it resides from the employment perspective?
 
Below is a representative list of tasks that humans will need to perform to support a fully automated factory. 
  • Design/Engineering Services: Manufacturing companies work closely with customers to help them design and refine their products to make sure that products are optimized for manufacturing. 
  • Financing/Accounting: Running a factory requires actively managing the cash flow. 
  • Sales/Marketing: Drumming up business for the factory requires a competent sales and marketing team. 
  • Purchasing/Procurement: A functioning factory needs to purchase raw materials, tools, and supplies. 
  • IT Services: A modern factory cannot run without IT services. 
  • Infrastructure Maintenance: In order to function, a factory requires access to infrastructure. This infrastructure needs to be maintained. 
  • Shipping and Transportation: The raw material and finished products need to go in and out of the factory. 
  • Equipment Maintenance and Service: The equipment in the factory needs to be maintained and serviced to keep it functional. 
  • Utilities: The factory needs access to utilities such as energy and water. 
  • Building/Construction: Factory buildings need to be maintained and updated. 
  • Insurance: Factories need tailored insurance products to manage risks. 
  • IP/Legal Services: Factories need legal services to protect their IP.
All of the jobs listed above will continue to be performed by humans in the near foreseeable future. My analysis indicates that a region with healthy manufacturing operations gains quite a few service sector jobs. In my opinion, it is better to automate and keep the service jobs to support manufacturing operations rather than let the manufacturing move to low wage countries and lose both manufacturing and service jobs. Unfortunately, in a globally connected economy there is no other viable alternative. Ultimately, continued erosion of  critical manufacturing infrastructure will compromise the national security.  Hence, we have no choice but to embrace automation to maintain a healthy manufacturing base.

Unfortunately, existing robotics technologies do not help small production volume operations in reducing manual labor. Hence, such operations often find themselves in an unfavorable position from the cost perspective with respect to low wage countries. Recent advances in robotics are creating hardware and software that enable robots to be used on non-repetitive tasks. Hopefully, this will lead to a wide scale adoption of robots in small production volume operations and help in growing manufacturing operations in the US. 

The transition to increased automation in the manufacturing sector will not be easy. We will need workforce training programs to ensure that people who are laid off as a result of automation are trained to do other jobs at the factories.

I would like to thank Scott Macdonald, CEO, Maryland Thermoform Corporation for his insightful feedback on this topic.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

What is the Next Frontier in 3D Printing?

During its early days, 3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing) was mainly considered a rapid prototyping process. It provided people a convenient way to prototype complex shapes. Over the last twenty years, the popularity of 3D printing has grown tremendously and it is now being used in a wide variety of applications. Here is a representative list:

Production Parts: People are now making production parts using 3D printing. It enables production of complex custom shapes without requiring specialized tooling. This offers designers a much wider variety of shapes and significantly cuts down the lead time. Geometric shape flexibility afforded by 3D printing can be used to reduce weight and reduce the part count in the product. Famous examples of this category include fuel nozzles in engines and custom hearing aids.

3D Printed Fuel Nozzle for Engine (Image Source https://gereports.ca/slideshow/look-ahead-master-class-advanced-aviation/)


Example of a 3D Printed Hearing Aid (Image Source: https://audicus.com/hearing-aids-3d-printing/)
Biologically Inspired Robots: 3D printing enables manufacturing of biologically inspired robots that have complex shapes and mechanisms to realize biologically inspired locomotion and manipulation.


R2G2: A 3D Printed Robot Developed by My Student James Hopkins that Uses a High Speed Rectilinear Gait
Cars: 3D printing is being used to fabricate the body and structural members of the custom cars. 

Local Motors 3D Printed a Car (Image Source:
http://www.popularmechanics.com/cars/a16726/local-motors-strati-roadster-test-drive/)
Prosthesis: 3D printing has been used to create hand prosthesis because of its ability to offer custom designs to fit the patient's size and needs. 

Examples of 3D Printed Hand Prosthesis (Image Source: http://enablingthefuture.org/upper-limb-prosthetics/raptor-reloaded/)
Molds and Dies: It used to take months to make molds and dies used in popular mass production processes such as injection molding and die casting. The use of 3D printing has reduced the mold making time to few days. 3D printing is able to incorporate internal features in the molds that significantly improve cooling time and hence improve the performance of the molding process. 

Example of 3D Printed Insert for Injection Mold (Image Source: http://www.eos.info/press/customer_case_studies/fwb)
Chocolates: 3D printing is now being used to produce custom chocolates. There are many other products in the food sector that are being considered as potential candidates for 3D printing. 3D printing can faithfully reproduce complex intricate shapes and offer novel food textures. 

A Chocolate Printed on ChefJet Pro Printer (Image Source: http://www.3dsystems.com/)
Biological Organs: Technologies inspired by 3D printing are being explored to create biological organs such as kidneys and ears. 


3D Printed Ear that Fuses Biological and Electronic Parts (Image Source: http://www.nature.com/news/the-printed-organs-coming-to-a-body-near-you-1.17320)
Drugs: 3D printing can be used to produce fast dissolving drugs to speed up absorption in the body.
Example of a Fast Dissolving Drug from Aprecia Pharmaceuticals (Image Source: https://www.aprecia.com/)
Buildings: Large 3D printers are being built that can print entire buildings.

A Large 3D Printer for Printing Buildings (Image Source: http://www.wasproject.it/w/en/)
Sculptures: Artists have also embraced 3D printing. They can use it to make new sculptures quickly and explore shapes that would have been almost impossible to sculpt manually. General public can also use 3D printing to print copies of famous sculptures at home.
Example of a 3D Printed Sculpture (Image Source: http://airwolf3d.com/)
Education: The uses of physical models can be of tremendous help in explaining complex concepts in geometry, molecular structures in chemistry and biology. 3D printing is being used to create physical models to enrich the educational experience. 
3D Printed Models to Explain Geodesic Spheres (Image Source: http://www.shapeways.com/)
Entertainment and Recreation: This industry is also utilizing 3D printing to innovate and pursue new creative avenues. Marketplaces are emerging to enable people to buy and sell 3D printed toys.
Example of a Toy that can be 3D Printed (Image Source: http://www.shapeways.com/superfanart/mylittlepony)
Clothing: Visionary designers are creating 3D printed clothes. This is not yet a mainstream trend. However, as wearable technologies get integrated into clothes, 3D printed clothes might start gaining momentum.
Example of Dress Created by Michael Schmidt Studio (Image Source: http://www.michaelschmidtstudios.com/dita-von-teese.html)
Jewelry: 3D printing is well suited for making custom jewelry and gaining popularity in the jewelry industry. 

Example of 3D Printed Jewelry from Artizan Work (Image Source: http://www.artizanwork.com/)
What is the next frontier in 3D printing? Here are my thoughts:
  • The current generation of 3D printing technologies has focused on offering flexibility in geometry. The next generation 3D printers are expected to offer many more choices in material. Once we have the freedom to select the material of our choice, the design space will expand and we should be able to realize novel products.
  • Setting up traditional manufacturing factory in space will be hard. 3D printing will be an attractive option for manufacturing in space or other planets.
  • A 3D printer that can replicate itself will revolutionize manufacturing.
I am interested in hearing your thoughts about the next frontier in 3D printing.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

My Ten Favorite Robots

A few months ago someone asked me, “What are your top ten favorite robots?” I had not given this topic much thought and it was hard to give an impromptu answer to this question.

I have finally created the list of my ten favorite robots. This was a very difficult task. Choosing ten from hundreds of worthy candidates is never easy. I decided to restrict myself to robots that were developed in the last twenty years. I focused on robots that have been available for at least two years and have a significant track record of demonstrating outstanding performance. Here is my list in the alphabetical order of robot names.

1. Asimo from Honda:  This was the first humanoid robot capable of running and walking on uneven slopes and surfaces and climbing stairs.
Asimo from Honda
(Image Source: http://asimo.honda.com/)

2. Baxter from Rethink Robotics:  This was the first human-safe robot to offer bimanual capabilities at an affordable price and learning from demonstrations.
Baxter from Rethink Robotics
(Images Source: http://www.rethinkrobotics.com/baxter/)

3. Curiosity Mars Rover from NASA JPL: This was the first space robot that attracted wide attention from the public and inspired numerous K-12 students to get involved in science.
Curiosity Mars Rover from NASA JPL
(Image Source: https://www.facebook.com/MarsCuriosity/)

4. da Vinci Surgical System from Intuitive Surgical: This was the first widely used robot in minimally invasive surgeries. 
da Vinci Surgical System from Intuitive Surgical
(Image Source:  http://www.intuitivesurgical.com/)

5. LBR IIWA from Kuka: This was the first human-safe lightweight robot suitable for industrial applications involving dexterity and force sensing.
LBR IIWA from Kuka
(Image Source: http://www.kuka-robotics.com/)

6. LS3 from Boston Dynamics: This was the first quadruped robot capable of walking on rough terrains and stabilizing itself in the presence of large external disturbances.
LS3 from Boston Dynamics
(Image Source: http://www.bostondynamics.com/)

7. Nao from Aldebaran: This was the first widely used social robot in education related applications.
Nao from Aldebaran
(Image Source: https://www.aldebaran.com/)

8. PackBot from iRobot: This was the first robot to be widely used in bomb disposal and surveillance and was responsible for saving many lives.
PackBot from iRobot
(Image Source: http://www.irobot.com/)

9. Phantom from DJI: This was the first affordable quadrotor that has all the capabilities a user wants in a flying robot.
Phantom from DJI
(Image Source: http://www.dji.com/)

10. Roomba from iRobot: This was the first robot widely used in homes.
Roomba from iRobot
(Image Source:  http://www.irobot.com/)

This list was restricted to ten robots, so I had to leave out many worthy candidates. I would like to hear about your favorites.