Robots Strut Their Stuff in Tigard

Engineers and designes crowd OMEP summit in search of new efficiencies from robots

In manufacturing, robots and 3D printing have caught the imaginations of the money makers and the makers respectively. Add the hot concept of innovation and you have the thrust of the Oregon Manufacturers’ Summit, which was held in a freeway-friendly hotel in Tigard on Monday.

Most manufacturing in Oregon is small and medium-size businesses, and this year’s Oregon Manufacturing Extension Partnership summit showed how close they are to embracing automation.

The first presentation was by Universal Robots, a California company with an Oregon office. They make Colab robots. These are small, easily programmed armature robots (they look like angle poise lamps) that can work alongside humans.

One problem with the industrial robots that spot weld cars and toss engine blocks around in automotive plants is that they have to be fenced off from humans in case someone gets hurt. But colab robots stop moving if they sense more than 22 Newtons of force or the equivalent of a light touch on the arm.

Fine motor skills

A video showed colab robots working with food workers to assemble and box salads for airline meals. Attachments are easily added to the arm so they can pick, cut, drive screws and spray. With force sensing technology they can be gentle enough that they can polish, a job that was done by hand a high-end speaker cabinet maker until they switched.

“Let the robot get the carpal tunnel and let the humans do what they do best, which is situational awareness and fine motor skills,” said Craig Tomita of Universal Robots.

These robots are come in three sizes and are cheap: $25,000, $35,000 and $45,000. The mid-range one came to $45,000 installed, but could save on average $450,000 in five years.

They are six axis robots, meaning they can articulate like a human torso and shoulders. Their motors are silent, so they are becoming popular in TV news stations for camera operation, where they can be controlled with a joystick. Programming is kept simple: the operator bends the arms into position and the commands are recorded on a tablet.

“They can also be used for machine tending,” he explained. The stronger ones have a force up to 220 Newtons and can open the door on an automatic CNC machine, put a block of metal on the spindle, and press the on button. One dairy farm uses them to spray iodine on cows’ udders at milking time — a dirty job humans are usually glad to relinquish.

“The day after Governor (Jerry) Brown raised the minimum wage we got so many calls from fast food companies,” he said. They have potential to tend fries and flip burgers. Even the fact that they run on standard 110-volt power sources makes them easy to install, and the usually come on wheels so that can be moved around to different tasks.

Without a tool, “They’re just a science toy. It’s what you put on the end that makes it valuable.”

People give them names. The commonest is Waldo, because they’re always wondering where he is today.” Some factory workers called their pair of robots Thelma and Louise, because they thought their job security was going off a cliff.

Geoff Gilmore, formerly of Climax Portland Machine Tools, pressed the room to innovate. But first he made everyone stand up for a few seconds, because participation is part of innovation.

Gilmore broke down Innovation into three units dubbed “I-3”.

Idea, Invention and Innovation.

An idea is just an idea. An invention is a prototype. A true innovation is bringing the product to market. He praised Apple as not a great technology company — although he was talking about the mouse and the GUI (Graphical User Interface) of 30 years ago — but as the best at commercialization or moving the idea and innovation to the marketplace.

The difference is leadership. “Leaders make something happen that wouldn’t otherwise happen. Otherwise you are a manager or a caretaker.”

He showed a bar chart in which Europe and the USA were increasingly dwarfed by “Asia.” The Y axis was the number of industrial robots in use.

Asia, more specifically China, is the world leaders in use of robots. It is no longer just the land of cheap labor. He put this down to leadership. The U.S., he said, after its success in manufacturing after World War II, had become complacent and slow to change.

Uber, he said, had taken three things that were already available: GPS, electronic payment and driver and passenger ratings systems, and turned them into something new that had left General Motors and Ford scrambling.

White collar disruption is coming soon

Further disruption is on the way for accounting and management jobs — anything that can be done better by an algorithm. Truckers are vulnerable to job loss — at least on the long straight roads between cities. When regulations are slow to change, companies innovate. He talked of one company that yoked seven truckers together in a convoy with one driver up front. All his commands were reproduced in the six trucks behind him.

He said that synthetic biology will allow bacteria to create cow’s milk for a tenth of the cost of dairy farming, using a hundredth of the water and none of the land. This is already being done in the U.K., and soon every town will have a milk factory like it has a brewery.

Snipping out DNA and replacing it will mean beef chicken and pork can all be grown artificially, although he didn’t explain the particulars, and said he didn’t know if it would happen in five years or 20.

He talked about robotic teddy bears that can teach kindergarten, then said “Our parents went through one or two paradigm shifts in their lifetime. This generation has one every five years, and they’re going to live to be 100.

A paradigm shift being like the transition from hunter gatherer to farmer, or the introduction of electricity or the Internet.

Continuous leadership

All this talk was designed to thrill the audience that innovation is essential to survival for American manufacturing.

He said it was better now to go for the Kaikaku rather than the Kaizen: the sudden, drastic innovation over the continuous improvement.

He sounded a warning to government and private industry about jobs going away. “A truck driver making $70,000 with no education after high school. Do you think that guy or gal is going to walk across the street into a job in the AI industry? Do we have programs to train them?

No. It takes leadership to think through these issues.”

One story concerned a factory worker who set up an employee discount on workwear on his own initiative. The seven top managers went down to the factory floor, stopped production to thank him and shake his hand.

“That showed the other employees what success looks like.

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