Back in April of last year, we had a post discussing how Tesla managed to set up its Fremont factory on the cheap. Now Wired has a video showing just what happens in the factory (Peek Inside Tesla’s Robotic Factory, Jul 16).
Last Monday I posted about Rethink Robotics’ Baxter robot which can be easily programmed to perform a variety of manufacturing tasks. And that very day, the Wall Street Journal had a story about a firm that uses Baxter robot (A Toy Maker Comes Home to the U.S.A., Mar 11)! K’Nex Brands makes a variety of plastic building sets that snap together to make any number of things. Over the last several years, they have moved much of their production from China back to Pennsylvania. There are a number of strategic reasons for the move.
By moving production closer to U.S. retailers, K’Nex said it can react faster to the fickle shifts in toy demand and deliver hot-selling items to stores faster. It also has greater control over quality and materials, often a crucial safety issue for toys. And as wages and transport costs rise in China, the advantages of producing there for the U.S. market are waning.
Robotics play a roll in this. They use the Baxter for “simple packaging tasks,” which sounds like the kind of thing that it would be impossible to have a human do more cost effectively in the US than in Asia.
But to my mind, the most interesting part of the article discusses the design trade offs that K’Nex has made to facilitate the move. (more…)
Check out this video:
The robot being demoed is Baxter, which is a new industrial robot and the brainchild of Rodney Brooks, the guy who brought you the Roomba. Here is how NPR describes the technology (Could This Robot Save Your Job?, Mar 9).
Rethink Robotics, describes Baxter as a collaborative manufacturing robot. Brooks showed how Baxter, which costs $22,000 per model, can work alongside humans — not replace them — to do simple, repetitive tasks. …
Baxter has eyes for feedback. Though its eyes don’t see you as a person, they serve as a signal as to what it’ll do next.
Normally robots need to be programmed, but this one learns by physical training. Move Baxter’s arm and it learns that’s how it should move its arm. In just a few minutes, the robot can be taught, for example, to take something out of a box and place it on a conveyor belt, then, after it’s assembled, put it back in a box.
So this is seriously a pretty gee whiz bit of technology but does it live up to the hype of working with humans and saving jobs? (more…)
So apparently America has a tire shortage — or at least a specialty tire shortage. And according to Automotive News, this has been going on for a while (Pirelli plant in Ga. masters small-batch, premium tires, Oct 11).
Over the last decade or so, the number of tire sizes used in the United States has nearly doubled, according to the consumer Web site TireRack.com.
Tom Gravalos, vice president of marketing for Pirelli & C. S.p.A., says: “All the carmakers want more variety and performance, particularly for performance vehicles. They are trying to make cars more unique, and consumers seem to like them.”
Cool tires would seem an easy way to make a vehicle distinctive — if only because their production is outsourced. Any complexity that comes with manufacturing low volume items is an issue for the tire maker, not for the car maker. But producing a wide variety in low volume could create problems in an industry accustomed to banging out hundreds of thousands of identical tires. That gets us to Pirelli’s Rome, Georgia, plant.
Pirelli, which has considerable experience producing specialty tires in Europe, has developed a tire production system meant for low-volume runs — which is where the Rome plant comes in.
A traditional plant typically might produce tires in batches of 80,000 to 100,000 units. By contrast, the Rome plant can comfortably produce tires in batches of 10,000 or so units, Gravalos said.
That’s perfect if you’re producing, say, an optional dealership-installed 21-inch tire for the Chevrolet Camaro.
The factory uses what Pirelli calls a “modular integrated robotized system,” or MIRS, to switch production quickly between different types of tires.
As long as the tires’ reinforcing belts and rubber compounds are the same, Pirelli’s factory can switch production back and forth quickly among different types of tires.
With only 250 employees, the Rome plant has a relatively small staff. It produces only 400,000 tires a year, according to Gravalos, while a typical mass-production tire plant might produce more than 5 million tires a year.
Slate’s technology writer Farhad Manjoo has had an interesting series of article on the increasing use of robots and automation in what many would consider white-collar profession. Despite the somewhat alarmist title (Will Robots Steal Your Job?), the series is a fairly evenhanded look at how technology is evolving. I found the piece on pharmacists particularly interesting (My father the pharmacist vs. a gigantic pill-packing machine, Sep 26). As the article suggests, Manjoo’s dad is a pharmacist so he has more than a passing interest in what happens in this market. What is happening is that pill sellers — whether hospitals or retail pharmacists — are relying more and more on machines to dispense pills. Here is a video of University of California-San Francisco’s pill-counting wonder:
Before installing the robot, UCSF needed about half of its more than 100 on-staff pharmacists to administer and check the drugs going out to patients on the floor; now nearly all have been reassigned to different parts of the hospital, where they make IVs, help adjust patients’ drug regimens, and perform other tasks that had been neglected when they were simply filling prescriptions The robotic pharmacy cost $7 million to install—less than one year’s salary for all those pharmacists—and when it’s running at full capacity, it can dispense more than 10,000 doses a day. After it became operational last year, the robot filled 350,000 prescriptions without making a single error. (The first error it did encounter was a printer problem that was quickly caught by its human operators.) (more…)
We are nearly two months into the baseball season and we have yet to have a baseball related post. Now that the Red Sox have crept above 500, it is time to rectify the situation. Check out this video on making baseball gloves:
The interesting part of this to my mind is what it says about manufacturing in America.
How’s this for an alarmist headline? Retail jobs are disappearing as shoppers adjust to self-service (LA Times Mar 3) Here’s the article’s point of a view in a nutshell:
In an industry that employs nearly 1 in 10 Americans and has long been a reliable job generator, companies increasingly are looking to peddle more products with fewer employees. Shipping and warehousing workers are being replaced by robots that can process packages more efficiently than humans. Virtual assistants are taking the place of customer service representatives. Kiosks and self-service machines are reducing the need for checkout clerks. …
“We have a service economy, and the service sector is starting to automate,” Ford said. “We’ve seen that technology does destroy jobs in those sectors.”
The shift is as close as the corner store. Like gas stations and banks before them, supermarkets are encouraging patrons to avoid cashiers. Most major grocery chains have equipped their stores with a few self-service lanes, which research has shown boosts revenue and profits.
Shoppers at Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, a subsidiary of British retail giant Tesco, don’t have a choice — all checkout stations at the chain’s 156 U.S. outlets are do-it-yourself. Customers like the speed and shorter lines, said Brendan Wonnacott, a company spokesman.
This video focuses on AVT Inc., a maker of advanced vending machines that is featured in the article.
So is increasing automation in retail really a cause for concern? (more…)
Here is a curious article from the Wall Street Journal (Japanese Farms Look to the ‘Cloud‘, Jan 18). On the one hand, it is a novel application of “manufacturing logic” and some serious analytics. On the other, it seems the article was written with buzzword bingo in mind. The setting in question is Japanese agriculture, an industry at a crossroad as farmers age. According to the article, 70% of Japanese farmers are over 60 and only 15% are under 50. This has created a role for technology. Where in the past, farmers have relied on their own expertise, technology has now enabled workers to be more productive while leveraging the knowledge of experienced farmers.
Now the head of a commercial farm in the southern Japanese prefecture of Miyazaki, Mr. [Hideaki] Shinpuku is back manning a desk with his eyes glued to a Web browser tracking every movement of his workers who handle 60 different fruits and vegetables across its 100 hectares. …
Shinpuku Seika has placed sensors out in its fields to collect readings on temperature, soil and moisture levels. Fujitsu’s computers then crunch the data and recommend when to start planting or what crops may be well-suited to a specific field. …
If Mr. Shinpuku wants to take a look at the crops for himself, he can call up online footage from the video cameras out in the fields. Workers can also take pictures on their mobile phones of potential problems like an infected crop. Those images are uploaded directly into the system so more experienced workers can diagnose the problem later.
The gains to this have been pretty impressive with cabbage production up 12% and carrot yields doubling.
Industrialized/mechanized agriculture is arguably the norm in the US, but this story has a different feel from a Michael Pollan book. In the US, highly mechanized farming often mean monoculture production. A farmer buys a combine and other big toys and then plants acres and acres of corn or soy beans. Here, technology is being used to support variety and in particular is letting unskilled workers access the expertize of Mr. Shinpuku.
OK, now its time to be snarky about buzzwords. (more…)
How much staff would you expect is needed to run a 196 seat restaurant? Not a fast-food restaurant per se but one where you order from your table and your food is brought to you. The New York Times has a story about Kura, a Japanese sushi chain, that runs restaurants that size with just six people working the front of the house and a skeleton crew in the kitchen (For Sushi Chain, Conveyor Belts Carry Profit, Dec 30). How do they do it? Large amount of automation.
In the depths of the slump, in 1995, Mr. Tanaka started a company based on serving quality sushi on the cheap. His idea of using conveyor belts to offer diners a steady stream of sushi on small plates was not a new one; an Osaka-based entrepreneur invented such a system in the late 1950s. But Mr. Tanaka set out to undercut his rivals with deft automation, an investment in information technology, some creativity and an almost extreme devotion to cost-efficiency. In Japan, where labor costs are high, that meant running his restaurants with as few workers as possible.
Instead of placing supervisors at each restaurant, Kura set up central control centers with video links to the stores. At these centers, a small group of managers watch for everything from wayward tuna slices to outdated posters on restaurant walls.
Each Kura store is also highly automated. Diners use a touch panel to order soup and other side dishes, which are delivered to tables on special express conveyor belts. In the kitchen, a robot busily makes the rice morsels for a server to top with cuts of fish that have been shipped from a central processing plant, where workers are trained to slice tuna and mackerel accurately down to the gram.
Diners are asked to slide finished plates into a tableside bay, where they are automatically counted to calculate the bill, doused in cleaning fluid and flushed back to the kitchen on a stream of water. Matrix codes on the backs of plates keep track of how long a sushi portion has been circulating on conveyor belts; a small robotic arm disposes of any that have been out too long.
What can a supervisor miles away tell the restaurant staff? The example given in the article is that there is an over-sized gap between sushi plates on the conveyor belts. This photo shows the code on the bottom of the sushi plate:
It doesn’t take much to find YouTube videos of people ordering from a touch screen at their table or getting a beer from an automated dispenser.
There is a really fascinating story in today’s Wall Street Journal on how e-tailers are organizing their fulfillment centers (Holiday Help: People vs. Robots, Dec 20). In a nutshell, the question is to what extent should retailers rely on automation instead of humans. Robots, of course, can be a lot more productive. As stated in the video below (but not in the printed article), Crate & Barrel has found that introducing robots has allowed one person to do the work of six in the old system. But introducing robots requires a multi-million dollar investment.
The robots in question come from Kiva Systems. The video below shows that, like the Drells, they can dance just as good as they walk.
At one level, this seems a classic example of a tradeoff between a manual and an automated process. The standard argument would suggest that the bigger you are the easier it is to justify labor-saving automation. Put more bluntly, Amazon should love robots. But they don’t. As the article notes, Amazon relies on humans to roam the aisles and pick the goods.
Meanwhile, just outside of Phoenix, Amazon.com Inc. takes a more human-powered approach. There, employees walk 18 to 20 miles a day down aisles lined with shelves, filling library-style carts with the latest orders and carrying items back to packing stations. For the holiday season, this Phoenix facility—one of about 20 that Amazon has across the U.S.—quadruples its staff to about 1,200 to handle the holiday rush, with teams working 24 hours a day.
Which approach is better is a matter of debate in the 15-year-old e-commerce industry. Amazon has avoided robots at its fulfillment centers, aside from systems that came with recent acquisitions such as Diapers.com. Yet Kiva Systems Inc., the company that makes the robots used by Crate & Barrel, now has systems in place at several top online retailers in the U.S., including Gap Inc., Staples Inc. and Gilt Groupe Inc.
So why has Amazon eschewed automation?