Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Heartland, Rodney Brooks, and Manufacturing Robotics

Heartland Robotics is a startup headquarted in Boston, still in stealth mode. Their stated mission is to build next generation flexible manufacturing robots that will collaborate with human workers intelligently.

Video of Brooks giving speech about manfacturing robotics

Shown above: Rodney Brooks speech at Maker Fair.

This is a crucial mission. The US and other high-wage nations must learn how to compete with workers who make 1/20th the houly wage. The only way to do this is to multiply the efforts of blue-collar workers, in essence, to make them 20 times as effective.

This can no longer be done with only with the high end machinery and mass production lines that American manufacturers have employed so successfully for so long. The markets have changed, with faster product cycles and shorter runs making such "big automation" uneconomical. We simply cannot continue with large up-front costs and long cycle times. The US manufacturing sector needs to change over to much more flexible automation that can turn on a dime and change rapidly.

Chinese manufacturers can undercut our costs because they don't use automated tooling on that scale. They just hire 1000 hard working low-wage workers, give them simpler tooling, and start them working. The human worker is still the most flexible "automation" in the world. If you can get human workers cheap, and deploy them in large numbers, you can drope prices rapidly.

The solution for the US is to leverage our better training and better technology. We need a massive upgrade of the tools provided to our workers. Those new tools should include flexible collaborative manufacturing robots.

Don't think of these robots as replacements for human workers. Think of them as replacements for the older, less flexible tooling.

In fact, it's very likely that the net effect on total manufacturing employment will be neutral. Net jobs will be steady, or will increase, as manufacturing returns to the US from overseas.

Heartland is focused on manufacturing, but we classify their robots as service robots, and look forward to covering them here.

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