Robotics revolution runs deep in Maryland -- Gazette.Net






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A brave new world

The 1982 sci-fi movie “Blade Runner” wasn’t very far off base, as it turns out. Robots of the future are heading in the direction of looking and thinking like humans but — many may hope — without the vengeful emotions.
Soon we may see robots with the following features:
Material: Soft and flexible, like an elephant’s trunk.
Face: Expressions on the monitor, in lieu of information only.
Intelligence: Sensors to detect and understand new situations, from physical relationships between objects to human social cues. Put another way, see the world, understand what’s being seen and figure out how to deal with it.
Autonomy: A certain level of autonomy, enough to be able to decide where to move and to send back information. Among a large collection of robots, the ability to coordinate themselves, to move together as a unit.
Co-robotics: Intuitive interaction between robot and human. Known as co-robotics, the development of smart, reliable robots that can work safely and seamlessly with humans, and perhaps respond to voice commands.
So is there an end game for robots?
Not according to Nuno Martins, professor and director of the Maryland Robotics Center at the University of Maryland, College Park.
“I don’t see a limit,” Martins said. “There are some technical limits, but every year there are ways to overcome the limits.”
And another expert’s predictions for the consumer — versus industrial — robotics industry?
“Robotics needs to go from being an enterprise driven primarily by research people, funded largely by research dollars, to being funded by capital, by industry,” said Gregory Hager, professor and chairman of the department of computer science at Johns Hopkins University: “There needs to be a tilt from university research demonstrations to developers in commercial industry.
“We’re still in the pre-startup stage. We haven’t had the gorilla IPO company that changes the whole field. There’s been no Google, no Facebook. But we’re beginning to see that possibility.”
— Barbara Pash

After Drew Greenblatt bought Marlin Steel Wire Products, a Baltimore company that makes wire baskets for factories, he initiated a transformation: Greenblatt, who bought the 30-year-old company in 1998, immediately introduced robots into the manufacturing process.

The reason was simple.

“We were getting beat by China. We had to become more efficient and more competitive,” said Greenblatt, who now has 25 robots on the production floor.

The Robot Revolution is well under way worldwide. As the technology improves and becomes cheaper, robots are being used more widely. Industrial use — commercial manufacturing — most readily comes to mind. But they also are found in the military, in pharmaceuticals and in surgery.

“Those are the big four fields of penetration,” said Gregory Hager, Johns Hopkins University professor, chairman of the department of computer science and an expert on robotics. “Still to come is the service industry, for use in everyday life.”

In 2011, President Barack Obama announced the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership that included the National Robotics Initiative. The multi-agency program’s goal is to spur university-sponsored robotic research. This year, it offered $44 million in funding to do so — and received nearly $1 billion worth of proposals.

The International Federation of Robotics estimates the value of the U.S. robotics industry at $12.1 billion, split between industrial robots, with $8.5 billion, and professional service robots, for such uses as medical and security, with $3.6 billion.

How big is the robotics industry in Maryland?

That’s a question the Maryland Advisory Commission on Manufacturing Competitiveness wants to answer. But robots are embedded in diverse industries in the state and teasing out the information won’t be easy, said Jeff Fuchs, Gov. Martin O’Malley’s appointed chairman of the commission and also director of the Maryland World Class Consortia.

Formed in July, the 25-member commission is tasked with creating an accurate picture of manufacturing in Maryland and providing guidelines to O’Malley (D) and the General Assembly. The panel includes Greenblatt, plus executives from MedImmune, McCormick, Medifast and Northrop Grumman.

Whatever the robotics tally turns out to be, it is not within the commission’s mandate to interfere.

“We might be expected to make broad recommendations on technology and robotics, but we won’t tell manufacturers the degree of robots in the industrial process,” Fuchs said.

‘Very precise robots’

Nuno Martins, an associate professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering and director of the Maryland Robotics Center at the University of Maryland, College Park, dates the emergence of the robotics industry to the late 1960s. By then, computers that control robotic processes had become readily available.

The experts call it Industrial Automation, a broader term than the Industrial Revolution. Not only do robots make U.S. manufacturers more competitive in the global economy, they create jobs to design, develop and produce the machines.

“You have very precise robots that can assembly a large number of units, reducing the cost of production and increasing the yield,” a technology first adopted by the auto industry that since has spread to other industries, from cell phones to washing machine assembly, Martins said.

Martins credits the military with playing a major role in the development of the domestic robotics industry. The Department of Defense has funded research on, for example, surveillance devices and remote-controlled bomb defusement, technology that has trickled down to civilian life.

Hager tends to agree. In Maryland, he said, the impetus for the robotics industry has come from the military and the focus is research.

He points to Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, where the Pentagon has funded research on a robotic prosthetic limb for wounded warriors, and to General Dynamics, a military contractor whose Westminster division makes large-scale robotic devices for the military.

“Maryland has an industry that caters to the robotics industry,” Hager said. “A lot of research on prototype development is being done in Maryland and a lot of it is for the military.”

Robotic surgery

This fall, Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park became the first hospital in Montgomery County to perform a da Vinci robotic single-site, or one-incision, operation. The procedure, a gallbladder removal in this case, allows for a smaller opening, minimal pain and quicker recovery than conventional surgery, according to Dr. Jonathan Rhee, the hospital’s medical director of robotic surgery.

Rhee said robotic surgery had its roots in the military and evolved into civilian use. Calling it the first new development in the field since laparoscopic surgery, whose use has mushroomed in the last 10 years, he predicts a similar boom in robotic surgery.

It’s currently used in obstetrics-gynecology, urology, cardiac and general surgery, but “we’re going to see a wider use in the future by doctors and by hospitals,” Rhee said.

In 2010, Mantaro Product Development Services, a Germantown company that designs electronic and software products, developed a telecommunications robot. The robot sat on a mobile platform, could be remotely driven from place to place, and enabled interactive conferencing in real time.

Since then, the company has developed a second-generation telecommunications robot, reducing the price from $3,500 to $1,500 and with the addition of iPad and other tablet technology. While demand has been limited, Jeremy Parsons, Mantaro’s CEO, said he sees a bright future.

“Everyone uses teleconferencing,” Parsons said. “We’re just very early in the evolution of the field.”

‘We can beat China’

At Marlin Steel, Greenblatt has bought robots from U.S., Japanese and British companies. The robots are stationary, the same basic model programmed for different tasks such as cutting steel, and bending and welding wire. Over the years, the robots have become easier to program and the price has dropped by one-third to one-half.

A small robot now costs $25,000 to $30,000, but with the necessary programming and integration into the system, the total cost hits $50,000 to $75,000, he said. For a large robot, the total cost can be double or even triple that.

The robots improve working conditions for the company’s 30 employees, who no longer perform the dangerous or repetitive tasks that result in injuries, including carpal tunnel syndrome. Marlin Steel has had more than 1,300 days without a safety incident, said Greenblatt, the company’s president.

One employee controls five robots. Each robot makes 5,000 bends per hour, versus one man making 300 hand-bends per hour. Moreover, the robots’ bends are more uniform than the human variety, so “when customers demand tight quality standards, we qualify because we can be so precise,” Greenblatt said.

“We can beat China because it’s still hand-bending,” he said, and “with China paying $2.50 per hour per worker, you’ve got to give your employees tools so they can compete.”

For Greenblatt, the robots serve that purpose.

“If not for the robots,” he said, “we’d have gone under.”