The Flexible Future: Strolling the Aisles at Automate

(Soft Robotics “flexible fingers” demo)

Earlier this week I took a stroll through the aisles of the massive Automate and Promat trade shows at McCormick Place, where widgets, gadgets and all manner of brawny tech for manufacturing and supply chain management were on gawdy, noisy, exuberant display. Below are notes I first posted for friends on a couple of Chicago hardware startup listservs:

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Hi All,

Alas, Christy, mostly I don’t know exactly what I’m looking at. My stock-in-trade is better than average peripheral vision, which means that whenever I have a moment to explore almost anything, I usually do. Automate (and its twin Promat), along with a processed food tech conference, made yesterday’s field trip a triple play. Sure enough, I learned a few things. In no particular order:

  • Rethink Robotics, the company that brought us Baxter, the big red hulk of a low-cost programmable “collaborative” robot with a cheery iPad “face,” has completely changed the game. Collaborative robots were everywhere — a sort of Shiva-meets-the-Sorcerer’s-Apprentice of dozens and dozens of multi-jointed arms in continuous sinuous motion, picking things up and putting them elsewhere with unerring and unnerving specificity.
  • Soft Robotics: Like Rethink, Soft comes out of Boston’s remarkably fertile university-to-commercial pipeline — in this case, George Whitesides’ lab at Harvard . The idea and, indeed, the products, are simple: plastic “fingers” that can grip and lift almost anything with great agility. There are 51 patents on those fingers and the system, which is designed to integrate as a robot component (see Rethink), is comparatively cheap. The most expensive set up comes with 6 fingers and runs about $11K. Replacement fingers cost roughly $150 per. In its first year as a business. Soft has racked up $1 million in sales, which will likely grow by orders of magnitude over the next few years. The biggest problem right now is keeping up with orders. To begin, they’re focusing on the food industry, replacing lots of jobs that are pretty terrible jobs with high turnover. That’s a huge topic for another day. Anyway, the flex-finger auto-hands are really good at making donuts, putting cupcakes in containers and picking tomatoes…
  • Logistics: I caught the back end of a talk by A.K. Schultz, VP, Retail & E-commerce at Swisslog, a warehouse logistics company. The trend toward insta-delivery is only going to accelerate and it’s kind of a nightmare. Key to making it work is the development of networks of smaller, local distribution centers. I asked a question at the end about how this trend intersects with the demise of shopping centers due to the rise of e-commerce and the sinking fortunes of anchor tenants such as Sears and Macy’s. This comes with loads of painful local repercussions, most notably a massive loss of jobs and sales tax revenues. Bingo! The trends are intersecting. Schultz is even writing a white paper about it. It turns out there are already a handful of efforts around the country to reimagine malls as a local distribution centers with limited pick-up service. Stay tuned…
  • B2B Logistics: Speech interface, combined with big data analytics (and potentially inventory sensors), is driving some pretty nifty innovation in warehouse efficiencies. Imagine scanning a skew and having it translate into words, or vice-versa. While speech interface has long been used in warehouses, Alexa and Siri have helped raise the profile of audio as platform. There are all kinds of implications and possible applications, so something to have on your radar…
  • HIT Robot Group: Compared to past years, China’s presence was pretty subdued, but the HIT Robot Group had a great booth. Loads of collaborative robots and drones, both the traditional quadcopter-style and a rather large one that looked like a plane (takes off and lands like one, too). China really has come of age in terms of design. Tellingly, they had a couple of tables where people could try to solve a puzzle called the Lu Ban Lock. I have an anti-aptitude for these sorts of things, but can totally appreciate that the practice of solving such puzzles can wire young brains to think different and develop a disciplined flexibility to imagine multifaceted implications. This is STEM and STEAM baked in at a cultural level. Breathtaking.
  • Think Bendy: The future runs on flexible circuits. In fact “flexible” might just be the best word to describe the 2010s. From multi-jointed collaborative robots and dexterous robot fingers to curving screens and temporary conductive tattoos, there has been a shift both in what’s possible and what’s expected. “One only has to visit the toy aisle to see the incredible progress in plastics and elastomers that is enabling this soft machine revolution,” notes Saul Griffith, founder and chief scientist at Otherlab, which specializes in creating flexible designs for everything from exoskeletons to heliostats.

Even Legos can get better with a little bendy magic:

(see Indiegogo campaign)

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All that, some minor swag (a few pens and a tape measure) and crashing a catered afternoon reception at the ProFood show (strolling onto the wide deck at McCormick Place overlooking Northerly Island with a plateful of food to watch a cloudy day Lake) and you have my lovely day…

Oh yes, I picked up a copy of Cheese Reporter at the food show. I so love a good trade publication. It turns out Brexit is already hammering exports into the UK, with Irish cheddar taking it on the chin. That may sound all Wallace & Gromit, but it’s an early sign of how quickly trade wars, or just uncertainty, can alter fortunes.

One more thing…

  • Women on these lists need to make more of an effort to go to manufacturing trade shows. Men on these lists who know women interested in manufacturing (students included) really need to encourage them to go. The skew was easily 95% men. There was absolutely no overt sexism, though clearly there are entrenched institutional patterns. For that matter, it was overwhelming white as well. Every man I spoke with was spot on about answering questions and engaging (the one woman was an interpreter for a Chinese company). If you want to find out what’s happening, who’s doing what and what sorts of things you might be interested in doing, stroll the aisles.
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