How to Bridge the ‘Valley of Death’ in Manufacturing Automation

Howie Choset speaks at RoboBusiness 2019.

October 17, 2019      
John K. Waters

As both a robotics professor and robotics entrepreneur, Howie Choset has seen the pros and cons of manufacturing research and manufacturing businesses. Somewhere between the two lies a “Valley of Death” that many companies fall into as they try to bring their research to a profitable business. Finding ways to bridge that gap was one theme during Choset’s keynote session at this year’s RoboBusiness 2019 conference.

The differences between the two worlds are rather stark, Choset explained. In academia, it’s all about creativity and big breakthroughs; in industry, it’s about incremental advances in products that sell. In academia, there’s little fear of risk, because the work is grant-based, and “incremental” is almost an insult; in industry, investors expect profits, and failure actually hurts.

It’s also true that robotics innovations in general haven’t “drifted over the valley” from academia to industry as easily as, for example, the technologies behind self-driving cars, he said.

Yet the payoff for investors in this technology has actually been quite steady. The industrial robotics business, for example, has sustained a growth rate of around 20% over the past few years, Choset noted.

“That might seem small to an investor looking for a big return,” he said, “but the truth is, the robotics community at large is selling more industrial robots each year than we did the year before. It’s not the kind of growth that would excite a standard VC style investor, which is why I think strategic partners make a lot more sense for robotics companies. It did for the companies that I started. Our main investors were generally strategic partners, who saw additional value beyond the payoff they could get from buying and selling this company.”

Researcher and founder

Choset has been straddling these two worlds for much of his career. In addition to serving as the co-director of the Biorobotics Lab and director of the Robotics Major at Carnegie Melon, he has collaborated with his students to form several companies, including Medrobotics, for surgical systems, Hebi Robotics, for modular robots, and Bito Robotics, for autonomous guided vehicles. Choset also co-led the formation of the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute.

Howie Choset RoboBusiness 2019 keynote

Howie Choset discussed the differences between academia and the robotics industry.

Choset said he worries about the impact of the current lack of major industrial robot manufacturing in the U.S. And we should be worried, too, he said. He shared a list of the most common industrial robots in use today, none of which are made in the U.S.

“The Europeans and the Asians are the ones making these robots right now,” he said, “and we need to create an ecosystem where we can be at least on par with them, if not ahead. And I do believe this is an issue of national security.”

Among the challenges he foresees for robotics manufacturing is something Choset called “mass production in quantities of one.”

“We are going to expect that each one of our cars, for example, is going to be different,” he said. “Boeing will be the first to tell you that no two airplanes are really ever going to be the same.” And increasing demand for ever faster delivery is already ratcheting up in the logistics space, he said. “Especially within supply logistics, we’re going to have to be more nimble, because this is what the market is demanding; this is what our competitors and our peers are going to be able to deliver.”

Choset shared videos of Hebi’s modular robotic snake, the surgical version of which is FDA-approved and currently in use in the U.S. and Europe. He foresees this kind of modularity as a powerful enabler in the robotics industry. “Our goal was to make building robots — good robots, almost industrial strength — as easy as if you’re playing with Legos,” he said. The modular robots attracted the attention of the oil and gas industry, he said, and Chevron is adapting them for pipeline inspection.”

There is an opportunity for innovation in manufacturing, which hasn’t evolved much since the 1980s in many facilities, when it comes to “soft changes.” The installed technology represents huge investments that you can’t just rip and replace, but the software can be reprogrammed to provide new, more customized capabilities for the hardware.

“Of course, there is this trend in manufacturing right now toward cooperatives, or collaborative robots,” he added, “which are doing quite well. I’m optimistic about this trend, and I think it’s something we also should be embracing.”

New tech, universal interfaces

Another technology Choset threw a spotlight on during his talk was “mobile manipulators.” His company, Hebi, and Canada’s Clearpath Robotics have been collaborating. “With mobile manipulators, you now have the opportunity to bring parts to the work, as opposed to the work coming to the parts,” he explained. “In other words, once you lay down an assembly line, you’re pretty much fixed to that architecture. But if you have more independent agents running around the factory floor, bringing parts to the work at the right time, you create the opportunity now to decrease the time that it takes to set up your manufacturing facility. And you also have the opportunity to customize that facility and change things on the fly.”

Choset also talked about a push in the industry for universal interfaces. The robotics industry needs universal interfaces, he said, because it’s not possible right now to “mix and match” robots in manufacturing settings. We’re now in a period that’s similar to where we were with PCs a decade or two ago, he said. The advent of standards in that industry facilitated “incredible product improvements.”

Among the challenges Choset sees for the industry in the near future: growing demand for robots that can manipulate soft objects, robots to assist workers in confined spaces and ergonomically challenging environments, and automated food preparation with a focus on reducing waste.

“I think we’re going to see robots interacting more with people than we have in the past,” Choset said at the end of his talk. “Right now, we define ‘collaboration’ as simply making it possible for a human to work in close proximity to a robot without getting hurt. But that idea, in particular is evolving. We’re increasingly see more of a spectrum of models, where the robot and the person will be playing to each other’s strengths.”

To see Choset’s presentation slides at RoboBusiness 2019, click here.