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.