Saturday, December 26, 2009

Robotics 2009 - A Review

Singularity Hub, a website reporting advances in nanotechnology, genetics, biology, AI, aging and robotics, presented their 2009 Best Robots pictorial, a graphic review of some of the most interesting robots in the news in 2009.  A few of the entries were frivolous or  prototypes with no prospect of near-term commercialization, and there were some major omissions, but overall it gives a favorable impression of the progress made during 2009 - and prospects for the future - in robotics. It made me think that it might be time to review my own progress through 2009.

In June, 2008, I began to research the robotics industry - and the future of robotics - with an eye toward selectively investing in publicly-traded or privately held robotics businesses. I set up The Robot Report as an adjunct of my research - to share the data I've collected and to provide a visual method to track the business of robotics.  I've also been compiling a database of robotic companies and facilities worldwide and developed an industry chart (RoboStox™) of publicly-traded service and industrial robotic companies from which to compare their change to that of the NASDAQ and the DJIA indexes. RoboStox™is updated and recapped monthly on The Robot Report.

My research was necessary because my stock brokers didn't have a list of companies involved in robotics. They had a few stock tips but nothing comprehensive about the industry. Nor was there a fund or index for the industry.  Not even a knowledgeable specialist or quant. I realized that I had to do the legwork myself. It's been an intensive project that has taken me to Korea, Germany, Japan, and all over the Internet. My eyesight has suffered but not my mind. I love what I'm doing and discovering.

September 2008 was right about the time that the economic crisis really hit. Stocks took their second and biggest dive. People were on the edge of panic. Things hidden behind years of obfuscation became painfully visible in the media.

Robotic stocks tumbled that September. Fell like bricks. But I was still optimistic. I thought that by the time I really grasped the business of robotics, I'd be able to select the good from the chaff, and ride the wave back up, should it ever happen.

Thus far I've identified more than 600 companies (worldwide) that produce robotic products, 150 of which are publicly traded. Of the 600, many are conglomerates or companies where robotics aren't their primary business - ABB is an example. Less than 1/3 of ABB revenue is from robotics, yet ABB is one of the major robotics providers in the world.  Many of the companies aren't listed on American exchanges. My database has another 650 companies, some of which are public, that are ancillary to the industry providing everything from engineering, integration, software, vision systems and other necessary components to purely educational and research facilities. I have another 200 UAV providers on hold because many are unlikely to become commercially viable due to restrictions in airspace and the probability that countless years will pass before those limitations are lifted.

Observations from 2009:
  • Strategic funding toward a robotics industry via a roadmap is non-existant in the U.S. but not in Korea, Japan and the EU. Their "roadmaps" have been designed, plotted out, funded, the public-private groups selected, and the tasks and research are underway.  Korea's $1.25 billion Frontier Program has an overall goal of a robot in every household and for Korea to become the primary worldwide provider of industrial robots by 2018. Japan's $100 million transition to service robotics is reflected in a variety of prototype elder and home care robots and smaller multi-functional assistance robots. The EU has funded (at least $600 million) for a variety of public-private consortiums in the area of cognitive systems, human-robot and robot-robot interaction.
  • In America, we are many years behind.  Our "roadmap" was presented to a congressional caucus in February but has yet to be approved or funded.  If it does get approved and then funded, it is unlikely to get into the budget until FY 2013 or 2014.  As an American, I find this to be quite disturbing.
  • Pragmatic funding for robotics does happen in the U.S. particularly for defense through DARPA, space, and from a select few individual entrepreneurs.
  • Although there is and will be stimulus for high tech from the 2009 Economic Stimulus Bill, there is NONE for robotics; rather, there's money for healthcare digitization, enhancing the national broadband system and for energy efficiency (mostly in the form of grants and tax credits) and the ARPA-E grants for the development of enhanced battery technologies, carbon capture and other non-robotic research.
  • Industrial robot producers have been diversifying and consolidating into the service sector and improving their products by making them lighter, more capable, less requiring of a safety cage, and easily trained.
  • Like other companies suffering the economic crisis, orders have been down and employee cuts were necessary.  But that trend appears to be reversing in the services sector.
  • Proof of this last point came from job offer information from LinkedIn and the Robotics-Worldwide mailing list - sources for monitoring such offerings.  One can see particular progress in the areas of bionics, motion vision, human-robot and robot-robot communication, motion flexibility, and artificial intelligence.  
  • Worldwide robotics stocks - in anticipation of a return to economic normalcy - have recouped much of their losses from lows reached early this year.  Nevertheless, almost all are still lower than they were in 2008.
  • Other researchers are getting on the robotics bandwagon in addition to The Robot Report.  Three new players offered pay-for material about the industry in 2009. The Robot Report, of course, is free.
Thus 2009 was a year of retrenchment for industrial robotic suppliers - product improvements and movement toward new products in the service robotics sector.  Industrial orders may have been down, but companies making the move to the service sector are hiring and marketing.  One exception to this has been in defense, space and surveillance where orders and sales are up.  Although news reports make it appear to be an American thing, it really is a worldwide phenomenon.  Countries from Israel to South Africa, from Brazil to China, are all developing security and defense bots of one type or another.

For me, 2009 was a year of research, database development and learning.  As the year progressed I began to focus on areas of particular appeal: rehabilitative robotics, agricultural robots, and medium-priced robotic toys to name a few.  People and companies began to discuss their financial needs with me and my collection of NDA's is growing.  Hopefully 2010 will be the year where everything robotic gels and we all have an exiting and prosperous robotics New Year.  One can only hope!

PS: 'Christmas Fun with Electronic Robots' was the cover story on the now-defunct Popular Electronics magazine back in December, 1958 - 51 years ago.  The issue sold for 35 cents!  I scanned and Photoshopped the cover into the graphic shown above.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Revelations from Tokyo

iREX2009 (International Robot Exposition 2009) held at the Tokyo Big Sight Convention Center in Tokyo November 25-28, was, to many, somewhat of a disappointment. The effects of the worldwide economic crisis appeared to have taken their toll on participation and attendance.

But from my point of view, things were quite different.  There was the fun of traveling to an exotic city, seeing all the different sights, experiencing the subways and noodle cafes and all the wonderful tastes and smells. There was the pleasure of meeting new people, talking about robotics and seeing the robots do their stuff.  And it was a terrific learning experience.  On the other hand, except for hobbyists and young peoples' contests, the excitement that you normally see in the crowds as they gather around the most interesting exhibit(s) at trade shows appeared to be missing.

There were few exhibitors that I hadn't already reported upon and included in The Robot Report's database of stories and links.  Nevertheless there were many noteworthy displays, some of which are discussed below.

Here is a slideshow of my photos to give you a feel for the show, it's colors and crowds.  Slide #1, of the Statue of Liberty - Tokyo version - was taken near the convention center and had a spectacular view back across Rainbow Bridge to central Tokyo and Tokyo Tower.

Robot --> robot interaction:  Robot-robot interaction (where multiple robots work together to achieve a common goal) was featured by most of the major industrial robot manufacturers. From the programmable dancing robots to the larger arms and hands that pass things to other robots, many companies presented where they were and what they were planning to offer.  Yaskawa and Kawada's robots (shown in the slideshow) worked, danced, moved in sync and were very stylish and colorful.

Robot --> human interaction:  (The enabling interfaces so that humans and robots can communicate.)  In the area of robot-human interaction, haptics and speech processing were shown in many different booths. Nevertheless, preprogrammed routines still control most robot activities although many manufacturers presented their prototype and edutainment robots which displayed every form of communication methodology.

Arms, grippers and hands:  There were many new thinner, smaller and very flexible arms including some very capable lab robots and very stylish tabletops. Incremental improvements in arms and grippers were displayed - like the flex-pickers from ABB and Fanuc and a wide array of hand-like grippers and the very capable grippers from Kawasaki and Panasonic.  KUKA invited people to their Tokyo headquarters to see their new sleekly designed arm unit (rightmost, above).

Sensors and vision systems were everywhere. Many 3D vision units were displayed. However, real-time sensing and perception -- the conversion to and interpretation of the digital results of the sensors and vision systems -- as has been coming out of research labs around the world, was lacking at the show.

Some achievements are now almost taken for granted and omitted or minimized from the show: navigation, mobility platforms and safety systems in particular. An infrared GPS navigation system from Toyo was one of the few exceptions.

Software normalization may be necessary, but there were so many competing software systems (SRI's Karto and Willow Garage's ROS to cite two that stood out) that standardization seems a long way off.

Many companies were offering virtualization software [a very necessary step in the acceptance and use of robotic surgery devices] for manufacturing, navigation and surgeries.

Service robots of all types were displayed: fire-fighting robots, surveillance scouts, security patrol bots, pipe cleaners, receptionists, edutainers and guides, etc.  One stand-out, ripe for commercial deployment, was Sumitomo's new line of autonomous industrial cleaning robots (right).
In one of the classes, KUKA and EUROP's Rainer Bischoff said, "Technology, economics and customer demand are re-shaping the future of robotics into one of service and human interaction." These sentiments were reflected in the actions of most of the major industrial manufacturers who were showing prototypes of their future service robot products as were a few Japanese technical universities (like the University of Tokyo KobaLab's pretty android receptionist Saya).
Another interesting prototype is Mitsubishi's Wakamaru robot.  Although not available for sale to individuals, it is available for universities, research projects and companies and is promoted as the first human-size robot that can provide companionship, or function as a care-taker or house sitter.  It's capabilities are similar to the other prototypes: recharges itself, call or e-mail if it notices a problem, continuous access to the Internet, voice and face recognition, and a dictionary able to recognize 10,000 words.

Healthcare, eldercare and medical robotics: Just as Intuitive Surgical was getting Japan's FDA approval to begin selling their da Vinci systems in Japan, Japan was preparing their own entry for trials and approvals in the EU and US (see below and in the slideshow).

The show had many healthcare robots from university labs and companies at varying stages of development. Yurina's Care Robot is a fascinating device for moving disabled people from and to beds and chairs. KobaLabs displayed robotic walking assistants. There were various exoskeletons shown: one from Tokyo's Institute of Technology enabled a person to lift and carry extraordinary amounts of heavy packages.  Cyberdyne was there with their new line of rental exoskeletons. Paro and Beatbot rehabilitation robots got lots of attention.

Concluding remarks: Two stories caught my attention during the show: one reported upon a GA Tech survey which found that older adults are more amenable than younger ones -- 77% to 67% -- to having a robot "perform critical monitoring tasks that would require little interaction between the robot and the human." The findings represent a significant heads up for the eldercare robotics industry and appeared to be reflected at iREX2009.

The second story, from the Atlantic, suggested that robotic takeover of repetitive, dull, dirty and dangerous jobs is having a serious impact on America's unskilled labor force and, combined with a continuing focus on cost-cutting and productivity increases, is going to have a large and continuing destabilizing effect on America's economy.

The fear of job losses, coupled with America's lack of investment in STEM education and research (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), is propelling the robotics industry to countries that already have funded robotics roadmaps designed and being implemented. In America, the roadmap was presented last February and is still being discussed. It's a long way from being funded.  President Obama has been making the rounds talking about strategic investments to help with STEM -- and many companies are getting onboard (iRobot just started a new program for the advancement of robotics knowledge) -- but will it be enough to tip the scales from the destabilizing effects suggested in the Atlantic story?  It was this pessimistic spin that was on the lips of the English speaking people I talked with. Additionally, America's lack of direction in robotics appeared to be reflected in the few American companies displaying their products at the show.

I left iREX with a bag full of robotics literature and a good feeling toward all the people I met and talked with.  I learned and saw things from the perspective of the biggest players in the field and I am grateful for the overall experience. And I'm anxious to return... I was so busy that I didn't have time to see the cult movie "RoboGeisha" (which has English sub-titles)!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Optimism: A Conversation With Henrik Christensen

I met Henrik Christensen (Director Robotics and Intelligent Machines, Georgia Institute of Technology) earlier this year at International Experts Days at the Schunk factory in Hausen, Germany. His presentations and comments were business-like and focused on the numbers that make emerging products successful (large enough marketplace, serious need(s) satisfied by the new product, price comparable or less (with savings) with present methods and costs, etc.).

A few days ago we had a conversation that covered many of the current issues in robotics. Throughout the conversation, Henrik remained positive and upbeat, heralding the next few years as the tipping point for this emerging industry, particularly here in America. Of course, that's part of his current job: making robotics a key economic enabler in America. He is a significant player in the Roadmap for US Robotics presented to the Congressional Robotics Caucus earlier this year and continues to make presentations about robotics at various levels of government, encouraging cooperation and strategic funding to make things happen.

One area frequently in the news is robotic surgery. Intuitive Surgical is hot on the American stock parade. But almost 50% of the da Vinci surgical machines are not working at their capacity because many doctors don't have the skills to make them work for them. For example, one proctologist used to take 2-3 hours for a procedure that he now does using the da Vinci in 30-40 minutes. But many more proctologists take 3-6 hours (and after 4 or 5 hours it becomes somewhat dangerous to the patient). After giving it a few tries, they go back to their normal way. For them it's a matter of income - they can do more procedures in the old way and time. [There are new devices being reviewed by the FDA from Japan, Korea and the EU which, unless something is done, will also become underutilized.]

Henrik says there's a major case for simulation training and two of the companies that do airline simulation are working on moving into that area as are major programs at the University of Michigan, SimuLab and Immersion. Right now Intuitive Surgical only gives a four-hour training course on their machine. Airline pilots have to invest hundreds of hours in training and retraining. The Captain and officers of the new cruise ship Oasis of the Seas spent 500+ hours of simulation time before ever stepping aboard the ship! Henrik sees not only a growing need for such simulation training but the economics that can make such an industry work and be profitable.

Industrial robots are engineering wonders that are extremely precise, mechanically intricate and last forever... which is part of their expense. To reduce those costs, manufacturers are making their machines more flexible, safer, human friendly and less exacting. Rodney Brooks' new start-up Heartland Robotics hopes to make machines that are 20%-35% less expensive and more assistive in, as he calls it, the "as yet un-automated manufacturing" sector. This is similar to the EU project SME Robot which focused on small and medium manufacturers and their requirements for flexible and quick shop assistance.

One "as yet un-automated" sector is warehouse fulfillment, an area where Kiva Systems has been so successful that it can't keep up with its orders. Amazon and all the other big mail-order processors are in need of products similar to the Kiva system but unique to their specific methods. It's an area ripe for innovation and one in which Henrik sees many things happening as early as early 2010.

One area where the economics aren't right yet for commercialization appears to be in therapeutic and eldercare assistive robotics. The research and equipment have yet to find their niche, yet the needs exist with autistic children and people with strokes and other disabilities and eldercare needs. The economic model to make saleable products with today's state of the art research and products just doesn't presently exist.

Finally we talked about the need for regional incubators to foster start-up companies -- to help them make the big switch from research engineers to marketing and management executives and to focus on helping customers do their jobs better with robotic equipment.

Henrik wants to tie research grants to real needs which, if he is able to get an agreement from the government to make strategic investments as is done by DARPA and now ARPA-E, will pay off and make robotics a key economic enabler in America.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Bossa Nova Robotics Introduces Two New Products

I know nothing about robotic toys. Nevertheless I was invited to a presentation two days ago at Carnegie Mellon's Robotic Institute where Bossa Nova Robotics, a CMU spin-off, presented their new Prime-8 and Penbo toys. The toys took many years and product iterations to complete because Bossa Nova's surveys indicated a $99 or lower price point and transforming the intricate technology (hardware and software) to match that price was the primary reason for the delay. Both toys are mobile, interactive, vocal, and have a repertoire of games and remote control options. Penbo, a fuzzy penguin-like robot, sings, dances, cuddles and communicates with her baby, which she carries in a front compartment. Prime-8 is more vigorous with loud sounds age-appropriate to his 8-12 year old comrades (he even farts!).

What attracted me to the Bossa Nova launch was the science and the process -- but what sells toys is entirely different. The science in this case was CMU and DARPA's RHex, a six legged robot capable of multi-terrain exploration and patterned after the locomotion of the cockroach where the legs adapt to various terrains faster than the neural system.

Bossa Nova Concepts has taken CMU's multi-million dollar HRex research and developed it into a bi-pedal product (instead of the original six legs) and reduced costs to a toy's pricing ($99 retail). They raised funds from Innovation Works, Wellspring Worldwide, Eckhart Seamons and The Technology Collaborative and took four years of intensive research to come to market with their first products. Describing the technology and process were Bossa Nova's CEO Martin Hitch and co-founder Sarjoun Skaff. Bossa Nova provided the engineering and design and Jetta Manufacturing, a Chinese rep based in Hong Kong, is providing the product and packaging.

But that's where science and value engineering leave the scene and kid psychology, focus groups, and marketing enter. The toy industry is changing dramatically with video games leading the way and expanding expectations. Although robotic toys are holding their own, they too have to continuously find "cool" from the research labs and entrepreneurs that take technology and transition it to the streets and into households, literally letting people experience robotic technology at an affordable price.

Bossa Nova attempted to build a single toy utilizing their new bi-pedal locomotion technology only to find that boys and girls had different expectations and needs. Younger girls (4-6) wanted a touchy-feely interactive device that was cuddly and appealing; slightly older boys (8-12) wanted their toys to be interactive, action-oriented and physical. Girls didn't care about remote control or autonomous operation; boys did. Thus Bossa Nova had to come up with two different products and two unique marketing schemes with the sole common denominator of the bi-pedal locomotion system.

I researched the net for similar or competing robotic toys and found the Robini-i to be somewhat similar in audience and capabilities to the $99 Prime-8. The Robini-i is already selling in the international market for $249 and the South African company Robonica will have products in US stores this September; Prime-8 will be available July 25th from QVC and shortly thereafter online from Amazon. Femisapien, a WowWee product, $59-$99, has worldwide market penetration and appears comparable but not as fuzzy and cute as Penbo which will sell for $69 and be available from QVC mid-August and online from Amazon about the same time.

We were encouraged to have a hands-on experience with Prime-8 and Penbo during the presentation. A man and his son (who appeared to be about 7 years old) walked through and stopped to watch us play. The boy watched and smiled. Somebody offered him the remote controller for one of the Prime-8s and he began to explore and play. He smiled and experimented and periodically looked back at his father with a happy look and then continued playing. At some point, without apparent signals from his father, after about 15 minutes of play, he handed the controller back to an adult, grabbed his father's hand and they walked away. From my minimal experience with toys and kids, he passed the 2-minute test with flying colors!

Preceding the product demo was an intro to CMU's Robotics Institute by Director Matt Mason and a tour of one of CMU's three research labs which house over 500 researchers. In the one we were at on the main campus (the lab was recovering from recent flood damage), were CMU and Astrobiotic's entry into Google's $20 million Lunar X Challenge, a robotic apple and orange picker, and various other works in progress. CMU's Robotics Institute is a spin-off from CMU's Computer Sciences Department which, coincidentally and adjacent to the Robotics Institute, was completing construction of a sparkling new complex to be named the Bill Gates Computer Science Center.

From a business point of view, entering the toy industry is a tough proposition; not for the weak at heart. I've read that the robotic toy segment of the toy industry is anticipated to grow to over $11 billion by 2015 with the majority of sales driven by children's robots. Further, robot toys are what most kids wish for (especially boys). Nevertheless, it's a tough task to get shelf space particularly in a down and price-driven market. Johan Poolman, President of competing robotic toy start-up Robonica says: "Technology has played one of the biggest roles in altering the play patterns of children – technology products that don’t address the modern infatuation with anything PC and online will be unlikely to have the staying power to break through the short term fad barrier." Harder still is the process of transforming expensive robotic technology into colorful, interactive and low-cost devices that children want to play with. Bossa Nova Robotics seems poised to meet those challenges with their two new products and their ambitious plans for the future.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Dow turns positive for '09; NASDAQ up 18%; US Robo-Stox™ trail

Robo-Stox™, a compilation of worldwide publically traded stocks in the robotics industry and presented on The Robot Report, clearly show that America is losing the race in robotics except in two areas: medical/surgical and defense/security.

Robotics stocks in Korea, Japan and Europe are outperforming American stocks and the NASDAQ.


PPIP’s. Public, Private Investment Partnerships focused on robotic growth where it will do the most good.

Korea is two years into an aggressive plan to invest $1 billion in order to be #1 in the worldwide robotics industry by 2018 and they’re spending $100 million each year in that pursuit.

Japan has many PPIPs focused on enabling the elderly to remain independent as long as possible thereby reducing healthcare cost and providing a better life for its citizens with robotics.

Europe has many PPIPs. One, which just concluded, focused on the robotic needs of small and medium-sized manufacturers. Yet when American educators from the major US tech universities presented their roadmap for our robotics industry before Congress last month, their suggestions for manufacturing had already been researched and reflected in the EU’s SME Robot Initiative. We are that far behind!

Worse, to date there’s been just one story about the presentation before Congress, and not a single published quote on the subject from any of the members of the Robotics Caucus. It's an interesting and illuminating read and I invite you download the PDF file and read it.

America desperately needs public/private partnerships to foster it's robotics industry or this budding business will go the way of the original American robot manufacturer: from Detroit to Japan.

Details and links for all the information above can be found in The Robot Report, a free website dedicated to tracking the business of robotics. The founder of a leading robotics company said about The Robot Report: “...your site has been a mainstay of my presentations. It shows next-generation robotics as ‘a real business and not just a big playground.’”

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Conversation with Chris

I had an informative conversation with a recent LinkedIn acquaintance that I'd like to share. It began in answer to his question:
Just curious, your profile says, "Because I believe that robotics is the next big thing..." What do you envision, in terms of "next big thing"?
I responded:
Robotics, in all its interdisciplinary forms, will be everywhere very soon. In our homes, cars and appliances. At the hospital and in the workplace. Protecting us from afar. It's happening fast but not like in the movies. In America and Europe, it'll be in advanced embedded interactive systems like adaptive cruise control that now handles lane boundaries and will soon handle trucks and busses unmanned in controlled lanes; or in Kiva style warehouses (no fixed shelving; few pick & pack people; heavy computer control); or in smaller and smaller interactive medical devices.

In Japan and Korea, more humanoid-looking robots will be used for personal and factory assistants and we'll all be using exoskeletons of one type or another such as the ones being used for Japan's seniors to help them garden or Honda's factory workers who squat, climb and lift.

It's truly amazing and just beginning to get into stride. Worldwide defense spending is paying for the R&D and smart guys like Rodney Brooks are commercializing that R&D.

My interest is in finding either (or both) a basket of stocks of robotic companies that will rise in price or helping fund a select few companies in need of management, marketing and money to grow.

What do you think?
And then came this wide-ranging informative response that I found particularly illuminating:
When I was younger, I had the good fortune to witness/participate in this same dynamic in the computer industry, WANG Laboratories, Atex, Computervision (located in the same building that iRobot is in, Bedford now) and Sun Microsystems. 

While I didn't realize what I was part of and witnessing at the time; it was a technological Darwinism that was unfolding with incremental technical breakthroughs that were being applied, somewhat haphazardly, achieving momentary commercial success and were quickly "leapfrogged" by a new company down the street, often with the same players. Although none of those companies and many others like them are around today, the relatively mature and stable PC we're both using has individual components (soft and hard), developed by those players and their technological derivatives; owing to materials and other advances. 

Now I'm older, I realize what I was seeing then but adding a bit of experience and now seeing that in the case of robotics and many other advances; that relatively short period of success that the individual computer players enjoyed will be even shorter for this field. This leapfrog speed is and will be much faster. But, I'm reminded that to this day there are significant numbers of DEC and WANG servers still running vast arrays of applications, many for the government and others for many of the large institutions. The installed user base as it were. 

So, what might this mean for robotics? If we look at the practical application of robotics, it will be interdisciplinary as you say and much of it is taking place in all the salient ways you mentioned.  While all of those are viable and happening, it's the medical applications that most come to mind as immediate and timely candidates. Rodney Brooks is a great salesman but while his automated floor sweeping and gutter cleaning toys capture the public imagination, its his investment in things like MAKO Surgical that really demonstrate the potential for robotics (hardware-wise). 

Take any high skilled operation in medicine, dentistry, exams, etc. study it carefully and you'll find that the operation can be mechanically fixtured and simplified via robotics which will do what they are truly best suited for, namely precision and repeatability. So envision going into a dentist for a root canal and instead of having an overpaid technician pounding in your mouth, using the same primitive tools that I use to file down a piece of aluminum; instead you sit and bite down on a universal, sterilized fixture that is ergonomically designed, and an "operator" is sitting in front of you, precisely directing the root canal "robot" via joystick/camera and or pre-canned software routines to effect all the physical force and position functions. Maybe it's mobile and can go to the patient in some remote areas, "affordable root canals for all." Perhaps this highly paid operator is making $ 60/hour so a root canal costs $600 rather than $ 2000. Further, it's repeatable every time. So the quality, repeatability, low cost, accessibility, etc. all combine as customer needs are met. Other examples exist and they will be found wherever we have a highly skilled operator operating high value equipment or carrying a highly specialized body of knowledge in his head. These are the applications that one might fund, (this paragraph long business plan, may or may not be the best example of it) but a good paradigm is to think of a skilled machinist versus a CNC milling machine. We've got very few skilled machinists today but we machine parts faster, cheaper and with much higher quality and repeatability. 

So envision an installed user base of this machine across the country, in some percentage of dental clinics and pretty soon we can quantify the commercial value. That’s not to negate the commercial potential of mundane consumer applications mind you. 
I think you're on the right track about the trend, as long as you focus on the substance and not the Hollywood hype, (terminator looking robots or the Kabuki Dancing dolls the Japanese trot out every year or so). The applications are happening all around us and from my perspective, one of the reasons were not moving faster is because some of the guys driving these things are coming out of University laboratories and feel it's important that they re-invent every nut and bolt, lacking practical experience in integration; rather than focusing on that one unique thing that they have developed, (perhaps a faster algorithm, a smaller/cheaper feedback device, wireless power transmission, etc. etc.). 
If you visit Heartland Robotics website and go into the manufacturers’ survey link; you’ll see by the questions on that potential end user survey that the graduate student who put that question list together has never been within a mile of a factory, let alone understand what the factory floor may or may not need from a transformational concept like universal robotics. We sort of have solutions looking for problems in that regard. 

To be fair to the academics and apologizing for my industrial bias here, there is some significant IP that will/is being developed as fresh eyes accidentally reinvent the “bolt”, material advances, etc. but it is taking the applications much longer to be developed. There's quite a bit of empowering technology already abundantly and cheaply available but it's not being applied, I think. That's not to say this isn't exciting stuff both technically and commercially, but much of it is still at the parlor trick stage as they agonize over things that have long ago been solved in industry. 

Sorry for the long reply but this is an area I'm interested and have a bit of experience in and maybe I can help you and your group identify/evaluate some of these opportunities from a technology perspective or add value in other ways. 

I'm not sure that I can help with the stock picks approach as I've long ago stopped riding up and down elevators in the Hancock Building listening to shills and I'm confident your grapevine is better than mine but if you're evaluating funding requests, perhaps I can add my two cents worth on the technology/assessment vs. what’s already available or maybe even evaluate the viability of what's proposed from a technical/architectural perspective. 
What do you think?

Monday, March 30, 2009

It's Adaptive to be Vulnerable

Jack and Suzie Welch said it best when they wrote "Put Your Rage on the Back Burner" for this week's BusinessWeek Magazine.
"It's crazy to think the most profound economic and cultural upheaval of our times will end well if we let ourselves marinate in rage. Rage begets only rage: it often makes people do stupid, short-sighted things that invariably spawn unintended consequences. Rage isn't healing; it's polarizing.

We all have to fight to keep hope alive replacing our rage with renewed focus on the good that are all around us.

Right now there are thousands of geeky, brilliant engineering wonks sitting in their dorm rooms at MIT and Stanford and campuses around the world, oblivious to the weather as they pour their hearts into cool new ideas. Those kids and their ideas are the future of business if we just hang on tight and adapt.

Psychologist, author and artist Robert W. Firestone says that it's adaptive to be vulnerable - that we are more open to opportunity and willing to challenge ourselves and take risks when we're not hindered by rage and other defenses.

Certainly now is the time to stay focused and not get distracted with transitory issues. Ben Bernanke made the analogy of the current financial crisis to the story of the guy next door who smokes in bed. One day his house catches fire. While the house is on fire, it's not the time to place blame. Instead, it's the time to protect your home by pitching in to help fight the fire. When things are safe again there'll be plenty of time to assess blame and provide punishment where it's due. But right now the flames are challenging and it's time to take action.

The Welch article was uplifting to me. I hope you take the time to read it.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Innovation will lead the way out of our crisis

The current issue of Fortune Magazine has a story about Obama's difficulties in hiring a new CTO.

It's not just a Silicon Valley parlor game.  The process is being watched all over the country - and the world.  It's a key position: the new CTO will focus on using technology to spur innovation both within the government and the broader economy.  And that innovation isn't just in the area of telecom; robotics needs to have an equal share of the focus.

Scientific advances and entrepreneurship will help lead us out of our crisis, but the process needs focus and direction from the top.  Obama promised that leadership throughout the campaign by his desire to hire and his description of the functions of a Chief Technology Officer.  

Having seen first-hand the success of public/private initiatives in Korea, Japan and Europe with a focus on robotics, I'm sure that similar focus here in the U.S. will yield dramatic successes, particularly in the area of robotics.

It's time for President Obama to choose our new CTO and get the process going.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

President Obama. When will you choose our new CTO?

President Obama, when will you choose our new Chief Technology Officer?

You promised to stimulate the economy with investments in roads, schools - and technology. Robotics is the next transformational technology comparable to the introduction of the personal computer. Inroads in robotics are happening at an ever-accelerating rate in every area of the industry. Yet not one single reference to robotics (except within NASA) appears in any of the stimulus bills.

How can that be?

Robotic-related public/private initiatives are prevalent in Europe, Korea and Japan. These partnerships address important social issues (senior healthcare in Japan and Europe; increased productivity in many parts of Europe; etc.). And these initiatives are making progress. But not here in the U.S.

Again, how can that be? How can we be losing at a field we invented? The first manufacturer of robots was here in the U.S. It has since moved to Japan. In the service sector, robotics is on the threshold of amazing breakthroughs in healthcare, all manner of personal and home assistance, unmanned surveillance (aerial, underwater, on-land), space, defense and security, and in social therapies (physical, emotional, training, etc.). In the industrial sector, they are moving to lower costs, make the devices easier to train, enable more autonomy, and cover more aspects of manufacturing, logistics and process control.

Yet not one single reference to robotics appears in any of the stimulus bills.

We need a new CTO and we need him now.

Thank you for your time and consideration and for all that you've done thus far.

Accelerating Robotic Development Needs an Innovation Action Plan

Thomas Kuczmarski suggested in two recent BusinessWeek articles a need for a Secretary of Innovation - a cabinet-level person to sharpen the focus on changes needed to stabilize and revive the nation's economy, and an innovation action plan to mobilize and coordinate all of our technology resources.  That presently unfilled position is called the U.S. Chief of Technology.  Perhaps the delay in choosing this key player in the Obama administration is because of the prevailing hunker-down mentality, or because they don't see the pressing need, or confuse the position with R&D and sci-fi.
Too many companies are choosing to hunker down, postpone investments in R&D, and avoid risk-taking until the market has stabilized.  The companies that continue to build an innovation culture and make modest investments to keep the innovation pipeline full will be the ones that enjoy a big competitive advantage a few years from now.
The process of innovation can have just as much to do with rebuilding a devastated economy as it does with rebuilding a product line.  It needs someone responsible for leveraging the talents, skills, technologies, and capabilities that we have as a country.
I think his seven-point plan has merit:
  1. Graduated tax credits for R&D investments
  2. Innovation booster grants
  3. Innovation awards
  4. National business incubators
  5. Innovation training
  6. Intellectual property auctions
  7. Innovation index fund
Innovation and robotics are buzzwords that are often misused.  Both words suggest enormous appeal and promise, yet both are also used to imply excessive research and long-lead hi-tech costs with associated developmental problems.

The business side of robotics is not invention; rather it is the result of research to identify needs, wants and problems and then the interdisciplinary turning of those issues into practical, useful, necessary products and services.  But the process desperately needs someone responsible for leveraging the talents, skills, technologies and capabilities that we have as a country.

The new Chief of Technology will help ensure that the full power of the innovation process will be used in the vital work of stabilizing the economy and for advancing technological change and innovation into the future.  He or she needs to be chosen and put to work right away.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

An Open Letter to the Obama Committee Selecting the new U.S. Chief of Technology

The new stimulus bills will only help the American economy long-term if they help create domestic job-creating industries rather than stimulating demand for foreign products.  Unfortunately, thus far, there is not one dollar in these bills to support what could be a high-growth, high-income, high-job creation industry vital to America's future: robotics.  And the 20 members of the Congressional Robotics Caucus have not produced a single news item for anything robotic in the past 120 days.

Society is experiencing significant aging which impacts industry, healthcare and our daily lives. Robotics facilitates a higher degree of personal autonomy, new methods for manufacturing closer to the customer, an entirely new industry in terms of services, and new technologies for security and defense.  Robots and robotics are loaded words implying replacing workers in the workforce.  In fact, the opposite is true.  If the U.S. were to seize the lead in this innovative industry, it could be a source of not only national income, but hundreds of thousands of new jobs.

The auto industry and its ancillary businesses could almost immediately yield benefits from strategic investments in improved robotic technologies to aid their industries.  Improving manufacturing productivity, after all, is one of the keys to saving the U.S. auto industry - and the millions of jobs that depend upon it.

The healthcare industry is at a similar crossroads. The current application of robotics technology to provide tele-operated surgical solutions represents the tip of the iceberg. Robotics technology holds enormous potential to help control costs, empower healthcare workers, and enable aging citizens to live in their homes longer by the use of patient monitoring robots, robotized motor-coordination, intelligent prosthetics, robot-assisted physical, cognitive and social therapy, and robotized surgery. Yet they remain unviable alternatives as these procedures are not covered by insurance.

Revolutionary technologies are available now to increase worker productivity and revitalize manufacturing, particularly in small businesses. Small scale (micro) manufacturing can utilize these new technologies to accelerate the transition of manufacturing back to America. It will take investment dollars to spur this on - to be the driving force. Yet not a dollar has thus far been earmarked for anything robotic. Nowhere! Not in any of these stimulus or bailout bills!

Robotic-related public/private initiatives are prevalent in Europe, Korea and Japan. These partnerships address important regional social issues (senior healthcare in Japan and Europe; increased productivity in many parts of Europe; etc.). But not here in the U.S. [with the exception of military, defense, NASA and security projects].

I was so outraged by these facts that I rechecked the research -- with the same result. Not a single reference to anything robotic in the House Bill, the Senate Bill or the final American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. And not a peep from the Caucus. Nor from any of the Chief Technology Officer candidates.

How can that be?

Robotics is the next transformational technology comparable to the introduction of the personal computer, yet since the days when it was first established in America, almost all of the robot manufacturers have moved away from the US. Most robots are built in Europe or Japan. CMU, MIT, Stanford and a few other research centers have clusters of innovative regional robotic providers mostly funded by NASA, DoD and DARPA research.

I'm frustrated! It's hard to be hopeful under these conditions. But I do hope that you – the people on the selection committee for the new CTO – will take notice and select someone who is robot friendly, supporting his interest with strategic investments and public/private initiatives initially focused on small businesses, the auto industry and healthcare.

Perhaps Rodney Brooks (MIT, iRobots, Heartland Robotics) could be persuaded to take the job.

NOTE: This piece came from my participation in a robotics conference (International Expert Days) last week in Germany. It became clear to me that America was and is at an unfair advantage in the area of robotics because of the public/private initiatives prevalent in Europe and Asia -- and the lack of any similar partnerships here in the U.S. Hence, this article.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Next BIG Thing: Robotics

Visit The Robot Report dot com
I've been fascinated by the growth aspects of the field of robotics. Not the industrial sector - although those are intriguing in their functionality. But it's the service sector that is of particular interest.

In 2011, more than 18 million robots will populate the world - up from 6.5 million in 2007. Most of the growth will be in the service sectors. [ iRobots is selling their line of cleaning robots in shopping malls!]

As a method to focus my fascination - and keep it on track to make money through selective investing - I've started THE ROBOT REPORT as a new website dedicated to tracking the business of robotics. It is a resource for news and links to and about this growing industry:
  • Service Robots for Governmental and Corporate Use
  • Service Robots for Personal and Private Use
  • Industrial Robots
  • Ancillary Businesses
  • Educational and Research Facilities
THE ROBOT REPORT will be updated as often as there is news - and continually for the addition and maintenance of links.

THE ROBOT REPORT, in January, will begin daily updates of it's new ROBO-STOX™ index, comparing international publicly-traded robotic stocks to the S&P500.

You can help make THE ROBOT REPORT a success by telling your friends and colleagues about the site, sending stories and links, and suggesting new ideas and improvements. Perhaps even advertise on the site.

Please visit and explore our new site. Tell your friends. Send in stories, ideas and links. Tell us what you think. Add me to your mailing list.

Thank you.