Manufacturing currently comprises about 12% of the US GDP — roughly 1.8 trillion USD. Although there is a perception (and some truth) to the fact that manufacturing is leaving the US for low wage countries, there are many manufacturers that are interested in innovating in ways that would grow manufacturing (and jobs!) in the US. There are many efforts, such as the recently announced National Network for Manufacturing Initiative (NNMI), to accelerate this trend.
How can the robotics and computing research communities support these efforts? To answer this question, the Robotics VO, National Science Foundation (NSF), The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and the Computing Community Consortium (CCC) brought together 28 participants from industry, academia and government to discuss opportunities in advanced manufacturing for robotics, automation and computer science October 21, 2013, at the White House Conference Center.
The goal of the workshop was to frame a set of concrete problems that could be used to guide academic basic and applied research that would support advances in manufacturing. The workshop began with participants from industry sharing their thoughts on these four questions:
- What are concrete examples of the “pain” in your industry sector and how could robotics and computer science address them?
- What could be done to improve availability or effectiveness of your human resources?
- How do you envision the industry changing in the next 10 years, both in terms of product and in terms of production?
- What is your ideal model for academia/research to address these challenges?
Groups of participants spent the day brainstorming and discussing these issues from multiple perspectives, with an emphasis on short term as well as long term goals for research and development to promote US competitiveness in manufacturing. Several themes emerged. One theme that resonated throughout the day was the need to “automate automation” – the streamlining of the design of assembly lines and the deployment of robots to reduce the time to start production, independent of the product mix or volume. This in turn points to the need for research and development on model-based design, simulation and analysis for manufacturing automation enabling the optimal setup, design, and implementation of new assembly lines. Another theme was “missing middleware” that makes it difficult to generalize from successful deployments of components for specific tasks and transfer solutions across different manufacturing equipment and products. Finally, there was extensive discussion of novel models of collaboration that could give academia more immediate access to relevant problems faced in manufacturing automation and lead to a successful collaborative research and development program.
A final report from this workshop will be developed before the end of the year, with proposed initiatives to create better methods of collaboration that would provide concrete problems for proposals submitted to the updated National Robotics Initiative (NRI) solicitation.
This post was written with contributions from Henrik Christensen from Georgia Tech, Vijay Kumar from the Office of Science and Technology Policy and Greg Hager from Johns Hopkins University.