Although the U.S. doesn’t have a single strategy for advancing robotics and artificial intelligence, it does have several initiatives to encourage the development and use of automation. One of the most prominent is the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute, or ARM, based in Pittsburgh.
At the beginning of this year, Dr. Byron Clayton was named CEO of ARM. Robotics Business Review interviewed Clayton in advance of our Robotics & AI Summit at LiveWorx ’18, where he will be on a panel about “Reprogramming Today’s Workforce for Tomorrow’s Technologies and the Impact of Public-Private Partnerships.”
What was your background in technology and automation in Ohio and Louisiana?
Clayton: I’ve worked on a lot of manufacturing automation and spent a lot of my career in robotics, CNC systems, simulation software, and large automated systems for specific types of manufacturing.
Eight years ago, I went over to the nonprofit side to focus on innovation clusters in certain technology areas. These included electronics, advanced energy, and different types of water technologies. I focused on building these clusters with small, medium-sized, and large companies.
Prior to coming to ARM, I was running a family of nonprofits. We’ve been growing businesses for three years, including with a large incubator, a venture development arm, and a workforce arm.
How well did you know the ARM initiative? How do these organizations work?
When I was in northeastern Ohio … I worked with them on different projects. I served on the national committee that recommended funding. The challenge between mission and money is that you have a mission for the greater good, but you’re always cognizant of where the next dollar comes from.
So, in addition to focusing on lowering barriers to robotics, advancing manufacturing, and increasing the workforce, we also have to be sustainable, doing things that industry thinks are important enough to pay for.
You mentioned “lowering barriers to robotics” — can you explain?
Clayton: It has to do with flexibility, the versatility of robots to do different jobs. Some big companies can buy robots, and they can do the same jobs forever, but that’s not the reality for most companies in the U.S.
Small, midsize, and even large companies need robots that can be repurposed to different jobs.
Second, most companies can’t take months to deploy robots — that timeframe is not acceptable. If we can get these systems up and running in a few days, that opens up a big market.
Another thing is making robots more collaborative so they can work with and among people. The more that we can enable people to do certain things well and robots to do other things well together, the more productive and competitive we can be.
Finally, all these things together make robots more cost-effective. Most manufacturers are small and midsize; they have to be able to justify buying a robot. They have to have a business case. We want to help increase their return on investment [ROI].
What do you see as the potential for collaborative robots in U.S. manufacturing?
Clayton: We’re just scratching the surface with cobots. There’s a manufacturing renaissance that’s emerging, and we see signs of it with reshoring.
There’s a shortage of skilled manufacturing workers. A big part of this is, how can we leverage [automation and retraining] and really cash in as a country?
We have to push harder, and we have to be more competitive. We have to do things differently, not just in technology but also on the workforce side.
It’s great that we’re heading down this road, but we have a long way to go. Having the government acknowledge that we need to be more assertive in growing manufacturing capability — that’s a big step.
Aren’t things like cobots already available to U.S. manufacturers?
Clayton: That’s true, but the robots may not be manufacturer-ready. Smaller companies have created novel technologies, which is getting to a point where it’s commercially viable.
When you talk to companies that don’t pull the trigger [and adopt automation], a lot of times, it’s because of confidence. There’s a risk that it doesn’t work. You wouldn’t just go to a laboratory, take a technology, and put it in a factory.
Our job is to help transition this technology from the labs, build confidence, and take it to the factory floor.
None of the major industrial automation providers are based in the U.S. Is there something we can do about this?
Clayton: It would be great to have domestic production, of course, but we have to drive the demand. If we lower the barriers to adoption and make sure we have the skilled workforce, more people will adopt robots. As demand grows, then it creates the opportunity to invest in robot manufacturers here in the States.
That could lead to having robot makers here that have a high potential market demand that investors can justify putting money into and be assured of the ROI they’re looking for.
Other countries have pursued partnerships among public authorities, private companies, and academia. What has ARM learned from them?
The model works because when we talk about advancing something, we need to take risks. Private industry is focused on growing companies, but doing that for the greater good requires public money.
“The best way to get results is to combine public money with private money and direction.”
— Dr. Byron Clayton, CEO, ARM Institute
However, you don’t just want to put public money in something unproven. What does industry want? The best way to get results is to combine public money with private money and direction. That’s why public-private partnerships tend to work.
ARM is a membership-driven organization. We have over 150 members from all around the country. We work with partners from all industries.
In addition, there are universities, research institutions, government agencies — everyone’s putting some funding in.
Even beyond that, we’re not operating in a vacuum. ARM is part of the Manufacture USA network and partners with institutes around other technologies that all converge to advance manufacturing. All these organizations are working together.
You don’t just put a robot in the middle of a floor; it needs other technology to enable it.
Is it difficult to coordinate among all these organizations?
Clayton: There are lots of challenges anytime you bring organizations together with different drivers, different types of personnel, and speeds of doing business. Academia, business, government want and move at different speeds.
Each cares about different things — government wants the national interest, business wants to be competitive, and universities are looking at the latest and greatest technologies. Our challenge is to bring that diversity together to benefit manufacturing.
How are you executing against ARM’s goals?
Clayton: We’re hitting our milestones, and we’re building the infrastructure we need to do. The fact that we already have more than 150 members is a win.
We can’t yet say that companies buy robots because of our work, but organizations are interested and are committing substantial funds toward achieving our vision.
We have queued up projects. We started with four quick starts, had a project call, and identified 14 additional projects. We’re going to have a cadence of calls a couple of times a year.
We’re not looking at a specific number. It’s a competitive process, and we’re going to fund the ones that meet our criteria. That may be 10 projects, that may be one project. We’re shooting for quality over quantity.
It’s all about the impact. We could come up with this great technology or workforce program, but if it never makes it to the factory floor, then what’s the point?
We could create thousands of programs, but what counts is the impact we actually have on manufacturers and workers.
ARM is based in Pittsburgh; what is its regional focus?
Clayton: We’re based in Pittsburgh, but we have a national scope. We’re working with eight collaboratives around the country.
We want to leverage existing resources and facilities, such as the one in Wichita.
We’ll be moving into our new facility in April of next year. It’s going to be more than just robotics — it’s focused on the future of manufacturing. We’re partnering with Carnegie Mellon University [CMU].
How will ARM link robotics R&D with industry?
Clayton: Our facility will run the gamut of basic and applied research. It will validate technologies and transition technology to manufacturers.
Robotics will be a part, but not the only part. We’re taking a systems approach to advanced manufacturing.
When you’re focused on growing your business, you may not have a department for the latest technology. ARM will help fill that role.
Someone can come to our facility and look across the U.S. to see what’s new in robotics. The idea is a one-stop shop for solutions that are innovative. If you’re looking to create something new and are looking for partners, or you want to bring it to the factory floor or promote it nationally, come to ARM.
Our facility will be a clearinghouse of information; a knowledge center; a place to connect, create, and showcase manufacturing solutions.
This is a lot of big talk, but we’re not doing this on our own. We’re doing it with CMU and leveraging the expertise of our members and organizations across the country.
Manufacturing is about the convergence of technology — that’s exactly what we’re doing: connecting all the players … to keep up.
While some industry observers worry about automation taking jobs, there’s a shortage of workers in manufacturing and other areas. How does ARM address this?
Clayton: To me, there’s a disconnect: People worrying about “What am I going to do?” And others saying, “I need help now.”
We plan to create career pathways for people who are fearing for their jobs to secure, high-paying jobs to provide for themselves and their families.
If I’ve just been displaced, wouldn’t it be great if I had a pathway to get a better job that won’t put me thousands of dollars in debt but would put me in a real career?
On the other side, robots are good at certain types of tasks. If you have a job where things can be taken over by a robot — whether it’s a robot or a company overseas that can do it cheaper — that job is likely to disappear anyway.
Your best chance is to find a way to better opportunities. Part of our mission is messaging, making people aware of those pathways. Manufacturing jobs are no longer dirty, dull, or dangerous.
We have to increase the size of the workforce by making more educational options available to more people. We need to increase skill sets, reach into a more diverse talent pool.
In addition to identifying and developing new talent, how do we address retraining?
Clayton: One way of increasing the skilled workforce is making educational pathways easier, increasing hard skills.
I’ve known a lot of blue- and white-collar people who have lost their jobs and are worried about going back to college. We need to make that an easier decision, enabling people to find a better career through options that don’t cost an arm and a leg and where they can have confidence that they’ll find something.
Another way is to focus on adaptive skills. Technology is moving so fast, people have to constantly reskill. We have to hire people who not only know tech, but who also have the initiative and ability to keep learning.
Part of our role is opening up the workforce. How do we find the people with the aptitude and soft skills?
Midcareer changes happen a lot. A company I worked with a couple of years ago couldn’t find IT project managers. It started to look for who had potential and found a receptionist who fit the profile. She didn’t make a lot of money, but she showed the capacity for organizing people.
This company took a chance, and now, this woman is their best project manager. Some others might have engineering degrees, but she was willing and incentivized to learn.
How does technical education need to change?
In response to the big skills shortage in the IT workspace, a lot of fly-by-night places have popped up, offering things they don’t deliver.
For quality, we’re getting involved on the certification side. What competencies do people actually need or are companies hiring for? We’re looking for credentials and curricula that meet employers’ actual needs.
When we talk about other career pathways, look at apprenticeship programs. I’ve worked for a couple of European companies. They have a couple of paths: a four-year university or a trade school.
Not everyone needs to go to college. We need to develop paths to success, working with our members.
We also need to work with human resources departments. They can’t just look for graduates with experience. Would a two-year grad with the ability to learn work out in a position?
We’re working with employers to give them more and better options. We’re creating alternate ways to be successful and get careers. We’re looking at other models and building off things we’ve seen.
That’s why we’ve been reaching out to community colleges and trade schools, not just MIT and CMU.
The good news is that the shortage of skilled labor is driving people to look at things differently.
How is ARM working with the U.S. government?
Clayton: We have an advocacy role. We need to invest in the future. Organizations in Europe and Asia have looked at tech readiness levels for decades.
Do we need more government involvement and money? Absolutely! Do we need more direction and involvement from industry, and to get rid of noise? Absolutely!
Do we need universities to step up and say, “Based on what we hear from industry, here’s the technology we’re working on?” Definitely. We need more of everything.
We need to assert U.S. leadership in manufacturing. We need to make sure that our workers and manufacturers are as competitive as they can be, and we need everyone to step up.