This week, the Robotic Industries Association named this year’s recipients of the Engelberger Robotics Awards. The prestigious awards recognize people who have contributed to the advancement of automation for the benefit of humanity. They will be presented at a special dinner at Automate 2019.
Howie Choset will receive the award for education. As a professor, he has developed Carnegie Mellon University’s leading undergraduate robotics degree program. Choset has conducted research into areas such as multi-robot collaboration, robot-aided surgery, manufacturing, and snake robots for infrastructure inspection and search-and-rescue operations.
Choset has also helped his students commercialize robots and is on the board of several startups, including MedRobotics, Hebi Robotics, and Bito Robotics.
The RIA named Catherine Morris as the winner of this year’s Engelberger Leadership Award. She is group leader and director of automotive sales at ATI Industrial Automation, which makes robotic tool changers, force/torque sensors, and robotic peripheral devices.
Morris was the first female chair of the Robotic Industries Association (RIA) and the first to represent peripheral components. She has worked to build the Automate trade show and is on the board of the RIA as well as the Association for Advancing Automation (A3), the parent organization of the RIA. Morris has served as a mentor to women in robotics, and her efforts have helped encourage the success of robotics manufacturers, integrators, and end users alike.
The Robot Report spoke with the honorees about the Engelberger awards, their work, and advice for robotics developers.
How did you find out about this year’s Engelberger Robotics Awards? What was your reaction?
Choset: I knew I was being nominated, but you just don’t know. When Jeff Burnstein [president of A3] called, I thought he was calling about something else. I was delighted to be named.
Morris: It was a surprise. I had heard I was a nominee — I was pretty blown away by that. I told Dean Elkins [segment leader for material handling at Yaskawa Motoman and former RIA chair] that I didn’t think I was in the same category as past recipients.
I love this industry, but I never thought of myself as an Engleberger Robotics Award winner. The messages I’ve gotten have been pretty overwhelming, and I’m humbled beyond words.
What past work or applications are you proudest of?
Choset: It’s hard to pick one thing. It’s like deciding who is your favorite child. I’m grateful to my students and staff.
Of the projects themselves, I’m proud that the medical robots we pioneered are operating on people now. [The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Medrobotics’ Flex system, which is based on Choset’s research, for certain procedures.]
Another group went to Mexico City after the earthquake last year with our modular Snakebot. I continue to work with and learn from my students.
I also have great collaborators. I work with Dan Goldman at Georgia Tech on biology, physics, and robotics. I’m fortunate to have a wonderful collaborator at Vanderbilt University, Nabil Simaan, and I’m proud of the results of our research.
In terms of education, I also teach classes. Unconventional, hands-on experiences work. Students try harder to learn and innovate, and students from previous years help. They are then better professors.
Morris: I’ve been very fortunate to be elected to the RIA’s board of directors. I was on the executive track there and eventually chair. No other females have held that position, and no other peripheral supplier component companies have been in that position.
I was a unique voice in industry. I took it upon myself to create a quarterly message from the chair — not just from a staffer but from a member that has benefited from the organization.
ATI has always been like Switzerland — we’ve worked with everybody. We’re a supplier working with many companies that are part of the association. The message that a company can benefit from membership in the RIA and rise in leadership resonated with many people.
So, is robotics really an interdisciplinary, team-oriented activity? How do people fit in?
Choset: Without a doubt, robotics is a team sport, and it’s a contact sport — you have to tinker, think, and try. You can’t sit in isolation.
I love seeing mechanisms move, but I have to see that, find out what’s wrong and learn from that. By working with practitioners, such as going to search-and-rescue sites, we learn. I’ve worked with Ford operations people to learn about car painting. It’s a collaborative approach.
Morris: This gets to the fact that robots are creating jobs, contrary to popular belief. Anyone in the industry knows that if a robot takes a job, it’s a repetitive or dangerous task that humans shouldn’t do.
All the data supports the finding that for every job a robot takes, there are four or five better jobs for people that require thinking as opposed to rote repetition or stress.
I’m always amazed when entering a plant and seeing a person at the end of the production line trimming parts manually with a knife. That could be automated, and you could have the person doing that job be responsible for the robot or quality control.
How important is mentoring in robotics?
Choset: I would not want to prescribe that others do what I’ve done in working with students beyond their classes; there’s no one right or wrong way to do it. While I’m not qualified to answer the deep questions around the skills shortage, I do think we need to look at basic education.
Morris: For me, it goes back to the very beginning. I was a high school phys ed teacher and coach. The transition into industry wasn’t that difficult.
When I first started working at ATI, I had no vision of doing anything sales-related. I just started making cold calls, and everything was a new adventure.
Our company leadership was very closely aligned with the RIA, and I was able to learn from those relationships, the leaders of major robotics companies, and past Engelberger Robotics Award winners. I was a sponge for knowledge, and they were very welcoming.
This enabled me to be the same way to other people, including those approaching automation challenges and women I’ve encouraged to get involved in the business.
What sorts of projects are you currently working on?
Choset: I’m very proud of our modular robotics work. We’re getting a better understanding both from an engineering and a philosophical perspective, we’ll be soon be making scientific contributions.
We really want to improve manufacturing by making it easier for small and midsize businesses to purchase and implement robotics.
I also want to see some of our locomotion work get into tighter terrain. We’ve developed snake robots, and we’re now getting into hexapods and other locomoting systems.
My colleague and I have a project I think that would be amazing for industrial recycling — getting batteries out of Dell computers, since China won’t take our waste now.
Morris: My history with ATI has always been with the automotive market. In the past year, the sales team and I were given the opportunity to handle projects coming from the California market.
It’s not just changing weld guns in body shops. There are tons of startups, and everything is new.
The aerospace, food and beverage, and other industries are looking at collaborative robots for all kinds of interesting applications. Miso Robotics’ Flippy burger-flipping robot is an innovative application using our tool changers to prepare food in a restaurant.
If you can dream it, you can make it happen. The idea that companies are constantly searching for the “next best thing” has kept it interesting after 25 years.
In addition to the Engelberger Robotics Awards ceremony, what are you looking forward to at Automate?
Choset: I want to go from robot to robot to learn all their backstories. What’s nice about Automate is that it’s a one-stop shop to see the latest industrial robots, AGVs [automated guided vehicles], and more.
Morris: If anybody’s not excited about the show, they should be. [The exhibit hall] is completely sold out, and it has been growing year over year.
What advice do you have for robotics developers who are just starting out?
Choset: Do well in school, especially math, engineering, technology, and writing. Tinker, build, and program things. Play a team sport.
Morris: If someone asks you a question, no matter how large or small, make sure to give that person the information they need in a timely manner.
Too many people in the industry are looking just for the big opportunities. I’ve always prided myself on being available and responsive. Following up is the key to developing trust and relationships.
You can’t help but be excited about the robotics industry, from the guy who gets one robot for his shop to huge new things in aerospace or automotive. I believe wholeheartedly that the more people are involved and working together, the more possibilities they create for everyone.