New York Times‘ tech writer John Markoff has penned a feature in today’s newspaper describing recent advances in robotics and automation, what they mean for the future of manufacturing and distribution, and the overall impact on the nation’s economy. The news is mixed, according to Markoff — but the article is worth a read.
Some telling snippets:
The Obama administration says this technological shift presents a historic opportunity for the nation to stay competitive. “The only way we are going to maintain manufacturing in the U.S. is if we have higher productivity,” said Tom Kalil, deputy director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Government officials and industry executives argue that even if factories are automated, they still are a valuable source of jobs. If the United States does not compete for advanced manufacturing in industries like consumer electronics, it could lose product engineering and design as well. Moreover, robotics executives argue that even though blue-collar jobs will be lost, more efficient manufacturing will create skilled jobs in designing, operating and servicing the assembly lines, as well as significant numbers of other kinds of jobs in the communities where factories are.
And robot makers point out that their industry itself creates jobs. A report commissioned by the International Federation of Robotics last year found that 150,000 people are already employed by robotics manufacturers worldwide in engineering and assembly jobs [more following the link].
Traditional and futuristic systems working side by side in a distribution center north of New York City show how robotics is transforming the way products are distributed, threatening jobs. From this warehouse in Newburgh, C & S, the nation’s largest grocery wholesaler, supplies a major supermarket chain.
The old system sprawls across almost half a million square feet. The shelves are loaded and unloaded around the clock by hundreds of people driving pallet jacks and forklifts. At peak times in the evening, the warehouse is a cacophony of beeping and darting electric vehicles as workers with headsets are directed to cases of food by a computer that speaks to them in four languages.
The new system is much smaller, squeezed into only 30,000 square feet at the far end of the warehouse and controlled by just a handful of technicians. They watch over a four-story cage with different levels holding 168 “rover” robots the size of go-carts. Each can move at 25 miles an hour, nearly as fast as an Olympic sprinter.
Each rover is connected wirelessly to a central computer and on command will race along an aisle until it reaches its destination — a case of food to retrieve or the spot to drop one off for storage. The robot gathers a box by extending two-foot-long metal fingers from its side and sliding them underneath. It lifts the box and pulls it to its belly. Then it accelerates to the front of the steel cage, where it turns into a wide lane where it must contend with traffic — eight robots are active on each level of the structure, which is 20 aisles wide and 21 levels high.
From the aisle, the robots wait their turn to pull into a special open lane where they deposit each load into an elevator that sends a stream of food cases down to a conveyor belt that leads to a large robot arm.
About 10 feet tall, the arm has the grace and dexterity of a skilled supermarket bagger, twisting and turning each case so the final stack forms an eight-foot cube. The software is sophisticated enough to determine which robot should pick up which case first, so when the order arrives at the supermarket, workers can take the cases out in the precise order in which they are to go on the shelves.
When the arm is finished, the cube of goods is conveyed to a machine that wraps it in clear plastic to hold it in place. Then a forklift operator summoned by the computer moves the cube to a truck for shipment.
Built by Symbotic, a start-up company based in the Boston area, this robotic warehouse is inspired by computer designers who created software algorithms to efficiently organize data to be stored on a computer’s hard drive.
Jim Baum, Symbotic’s chief executive, compares the new system to a huge parallel computer. The design is efficient because there is no single choke point; the cases of food moving through the robotic warehouse are like the digital bits being processed by the computer.
Inside a spartan garage in an industrial neighborhood in Palo Alto, Calif., a robot armed with electronic “eyes” and a small scoop and suction cups repeatedly picks up boxes and drops them onto a conveyor belt [see below]…
Older robots cannot do such work because computer vision systems were costly and limited to carefully controlled environments where the lighting was just right. But thanks to an inexpensive stereo camera and software that lets the system see shapes with the same ease as humans, this robot can quickly discern the irregular dimensions of randomly placed objects.
The robot uses a technology pioneered in Microsoft’s Kinect motion sensing system for its Xbox video game system.
Such robots will put automation within range of companies like Federal Express and United Parcel Service that now employ tens of thousands of workers doing such tasks.
The start-up behind the robot, Industrial Perception Inc., is the first spinoff of Willow Garage, an ambitious robotics research firm based in Menlo Park, Calif. The first customer is likely to be a company that now employs thousands of workers to load and unload its trucks. The workers can move one box every six seconds on average. But each box can weigh more than 130 pounds, so the workers tire easily and sometimes hurt their backs.
Industrial Perception will win its contract if its machine can reliably move one box every four seconds. The engineers are confident that the robot will soon do much better than that, picking up and setting down one box per second.
“We’re on the cusp of completely changing manufacturing and distribution,” said Gary Bradski, a machine-vision scientist who is a founder of Industrial Perception. “I think it’s not as singular an event, but it will ultimately have as big an impact as the Internet.”
Check out the full article here – and take a moment to share your thoughts below.
(Contributed by Erwin Gianchandani, CCC Director)