At the recent A3 Business Forum — held in conjunction with the Robotics Industries Association, or RIA, the Automated Imaging Association, or AIA, and the Motion Control & Motor Association, or MCMA, I got the chance to interview some robotics experts about the current state of technology.
Nigel Smith, President and CEO, and Ryan Guthrie, Executive VP of TM Robotics Inc. took time out of their days to expound on the current state and future of robotics — including cobots, medical robotics, consumer-grade robots, and innovations in industrial robotics as well. Here’s the first installment of the interview and some more of what they said below.
Eitel • Design World: How do you think FIRST robotics and competitions based on the VEX Robotics Design System will come to influence the next generation of roboticists?
Guthrie • TM Robotics: I think STEM education is crucial. The industry currently has a massive skills gap between technical-support staff and experts … and there are also many robotics experts retiring. As that happens — and as some of these older robotics professionals begin to move onto advisory boards or into management, they’re leaving a void at the technical level. That void will only grow as the industry expands.
Seeing VEX robots and the FIRST robotics leagues and competitions in schools — and Obama-driven initiatives to have programming in every school as part of the curriculums — it’s going to bring new manufacturing to U.S. shores, I think.
At the moment, much early-STEM education happens in European countries. Just consider how Germany has a well-established apprenticeship program that they’re constantly feeding. Likewise in India and Sri Lanka, programming has been part of large-scale educational systems for more than a decade — so that now, a lot of technical-support services go there. So, they’re not behind the curve … they’re ahead of the curve.
Eitel • Design World: Ryan, you’re a young leader in the robotics industry. Did a STEM program give you a head start?
Guthrie • TM Robotics: Yes, it was a STEM program at my local high school where I grew up — south of Green Bay, in a little farming community called Brillion, Wisconsin. It’s a town with 3,000 people and 9,000 cows … but our high school has the best technical-education program in Wisconsin. Now, they’re opening a new technical-education center for the elementary school. So, if a farming community is embracing technology and robotics, that’s got to tell you something. The potential is out there, and the future is here.
Eitel • Design World: Was there a big movement to get that going?
Guthrie • TM Robotics: Not really. About ten years ago, the school district hired a new technical-education teacher by the name of Steve Meyer. He hit the ground running and hasn’t looked back since. He’s written many grants and spurred much interest in the community. That said a big international company in the area called the Ariens Company — which makes snow blowers, riding lawn mowers, and other power equipment — sponsors STEM initiatives. In addition, a foundation of the Brillion Iron Works in the area awards 50% of the graduating high-school class with scholarships.
Eitel • Design World: So you think that technical exposure served as the basis for what you’re doing now?
Guthrie • TM Robotics: Yes, my school’s technical program was the stepping stone into industry for me. It got me into this rewarding niche — and shows how students don’t need to be born and raised in high-tech areas of the country to get into robotics. In other words, I didn’t come from Silicon Valley, but still had an upbringing that included technical exposure. VEX and FIRST robotics help students go above and beyond that. Now, Brillion High School also offers a high-mileage vehicle program where students aim to design vehicles that can go something like 30 miles on a few drops of gas. Building cars to do that at the high school level means that these kids are getting hands-on and practical experience solving problems that are applicable to real-world automation.