Published in the Democrat and Chronicle, Aug. 3, 2012
JEFFREY BLACKWELL/STAFF WRITER
Preteens taking in a week-long robotics summer camp at the Rochester Museum and Science Center are getting a little peek into what could be a booming business by the time they are adults.
From the plastic containers filled with wheels, gears, arms, belts and pieces of every size and shape, they turn a little computer control unit into a rolling robot designed to perform a set of tasks fed to it by the campers through a computer program.
Designing, building, testing, adjusting, the kids practice the same steps as the scientist developing a robot for the home or an engineer building a new robotic manufacturing system that can produce millions of parts a year.
To the campers, the exercise is about summer fun, but some of them also understand the importance of the educational play and the possible future roles for robotics in their lives.
“Well, (robots) could be like cleaning, like being a maid or driving buses to schools or like be teachers for you at home,” said camper Theresa Homeier, 10, of Penfield. “They could build things for people and make progress for the future.”
Some experts have predicted that within 10 years, general-purpose robots — at $25,000 to $30,000 per unit — will perform house chores while consumers are at work; or serve as butlers at cocktail parties.
“We are putting robots into people’s lives,” says Sarjoun Skaff, co-founder and chief technology officer of Bossa Nova Robotics, which is developing a robot maid modeled after The Jetsons’ Rosie for less than $5,000.
To date, robots have mostly been used by automakers and semiconductor firms to produce goods in high volume. They’re also in vogue at some warehouses. Amazon.com in March plunked down $775 million to acquire Kiva Systems, a maker of squat, cube-shape robots that move products around shipping centers.
Robotics have advanced manufacturing and opened up business opportunities for local companies and job opportunities for the region.
Industrial robotics are not as sexy as the kind of machines that have faces, say “hello” or serve killer cocktails. But industrial robotics and automation systems (a form of robotics) are the machines that perform the high-speed, repetitive and accurate tasks in high-tech manufacturing more companies are adopting here and around the globe.
And guess what, Rochester-area companies and colleges are players in that expanding market.
“Everything around us is mass produced, where do you think this stuff comes from,” said Michael Marseglia, controls engineering manager, Calvary Automation Systems in Webster. “A pen that costs 49 cents has to be made in the thousands per minute to be able to get that kind of price and it’s done with automation.”
Local companies such as General Motors, the Kraft Foods processing plant in Avon, SenDEC Corporation, Xerox, Alstom and Harris Corporation as well as several local optics and high tech facilities use robotics everyday. Calvary Automation designs and builds robotic manufacturing machines for companies across the country and around the world.
Some of these machines have robotic arms for moving large automobile parts or machine parts, or for welding or driving bolts on an assembly line. Other systems have mechanisms for picking up electronic capacitors the size of a grain of sand and placing them on circuit boards for computers or mobile phones. Each machine is customdesigned for a specific task.
Manian Ramkumar, director of the Center for Electronics Manufacturing and Assembly at the Rochester Institute of Technology, said the future for robotics for business is in industrial automation.
“It’s very easy to talk about robots in the house fetching us coffee and things like that — it’s a possibility, but it is very far-fetched,” he said. “Before any of that happens, I think manufacturing has to start using robots effectively to become productive and that is what you are going to see.”
Robotics is not a new trend in manufacturing. It exploded in the 1980s as industries, such the auto and electronics fields, were looking to retool aging factories, increase production and efficiency and cut labor and other costs. The trend reversed in the 1990s as companies moved manufacturing overseas where labor was cheaper, but the expertise couldn’t support robotic and automated systems
Now, the industry is on the mend, according to Robotics Online. The online trade magazine expects 2012 to be a good year for companies that specialize in robotics and automation, like Calvary. Orders for systems are expected to grow in a variety of fields in automotive, medical device, food processing, alternative energy and pharmaceuticals.
The trend seems to be holding true for Calvary. In May, the company moved from Henrietta to a larger facility in Webster. The company has also added more than 100 jobs in the past two years because of the increase in business. Marseglia said the company is considering hiring more people inthe near future.
“Typically a customer will come to us with a widget in their hand and say they need to build one million of these a year, or 250,000 a month and we will apply any number of technologies to reach that,” he said. “The auto industry is recovering and we are delivering more equipment and companies are retooling and retooling with automation. The future looks phenomenal.”
There are jobs here
Automation has received much attention in the past for replacing and displacing traditional factory workers. However, it is also providing new opportunities for workers who can be retrained as technicians to operate the machines.
The industry is also providing a boost to college-bound students seeking an engineering career in a growing sector of the economy.
The Center for Electronics Manufacturing and Assembly at RIT is the training ground for new manufacturing engineers and technicians. The center is a research laboratory focusing on prototype circuit board assembly, failure analysis, training and process development for students and for local companies.
The laboratory has nearly $3 million in robotic and automated manufacturing equipment. Ramkumar said the center was possible because of help of companies in need of skilled manufacturing workers.
Students in the program are focused on computer-integrated manufacturing and product development. Courses include electronics, computer-aided design, robotics, manufacturing management, just to name a few.
Ramkumar said there is a shortage of manufacturing engineers and technicians in the U.S. and that graduates from the program are in heavy demand. For instance, the demand for mechanical engineers, which includes robotics, will increase by six percent in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
“This is not really something that kids really get interested in because they think manufacturing jobs are non-existent, but without manufacturing there is no economy,” Ramkumar said. “For every graduate who comes out of our manufacturing engineering and technology program, they have at least three or four jobs they can easily find … there is huge demand from companies that call us and we do not have enough to supply.”
Ramkumar said he is hopeful that programs such as robotics camp at the Rochester Museum and Science Center and at school robotic clubs will at least plant the seed in kids’ minds so they might consider the profession of robotics an manufacturing technology when they enter college.
“They build these robots for fun, but then when they walk into a facility and see a real robot assembling parts they will realize that there is more to robotics,” he said.
Campers Nick Hamby, 9, of Webster and Rylan Lagenfeld seem to have an interest and grip on the future of robotics. As they build, test and reprogram their robots to turn at the right time to knock down a set of stacked blocks, they perform the same tasks as a manufacturing engineer or technician working to program a robotic arm to weld car parts.
“I think robots will be taking over most people’s jobs and doing most things for us,” said Lagenfeld, 10, of Geneseo. “I think they will be taking over the future and becoming more like humans.”
That may be true, but remember someone will have to design and program those machines of the future.
“One of my passions is domestic robots and there has always been a wide gap between industrial robots and the clunky laboratory existence of those robots,” said Marseglia. “But the gap is closing very rapidly in the last five years and so it is not unlikely that we will be in that business someday.”