[JACK KEOUGH] A Closer Look with
If you were to ask someone to describe their perception of a robot, they might think of Robbie the Robot, the fictional fig- ure that appeared in the 1956 B-movie, The Forbidden Planet.
Robbie was a fictional 7-foot tall robot that walked on mechanical legs. No wisecracks about my age here.
For many years people saw robots that way, but now that vision has changed remarkably. The number of industrial robots on
the factory floor has soared as employers use them to perform
a variety of tasks. In fact, the number one market for industrial
robots is the health care sector, followed closely by manufacturing. Robotics engineers are eagerly sought by top
manufacturing and software companies.
The International Federation of Robotics estimates that in 2013, about
168,000 industrial robots were
sold — about five percent more
than in 2012. Robot sales to the
Americas continued to increase
due to automation processes
in North American industry.
Additionally, robot sales to Asia
rose considerably due to strong
demand from China, South Korea,
and other growing Asian markets.
Robots, proponents say, are making
companies more competitive through automation and the ability to replace many jobs previously held by humans. But others claim that although lower skilled
jobs are being phased out by automation, industrial robots will
lead to more innovation and eventually higher paying jobs in the
There are a number of projects underway to bring even more
robotics to the workplace. For example, Dimitry Berenson of the
Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) is collaborating with Julie
Shah, Assistant Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT,
and Director of the Interactive Robotics Group in MIT’s Computer
Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, to begin laying the
groundwork for robots that can safely and productively cooper-
ate with people to build products in small-scale manufacturing
operations. You can get more information on the project at this
By helping to make smaller manufacturers more competitive,
the researchers hope to play a role in revitalizing American manufacturing, Berenson said.
“Right now, if you have a product and you would like to
manufacture it competitively, you may have to send that work
to factories overseas, which can be a daunting challenge. Robots
allow small manufacturers to enjoy the same cost
benefits that large companies have already
realized. In fact, by putting robots on
the manufacturing floor, it may be
possible to bring many small-
scale manufacturing jobs back
home,” he said.
Researchers in the pioneer-
ing Robotics Engineering
Program at WPI received the
awards through the Nation-
al Science Foundation’s (NSF)
National Robotics Initiative to
investigate and overcome funda-
mental challenges involved with robots
working alongside people in settings such as
manufacturing plants and the homes of the elderly.
Google is one company that has recognized the importance of
robotic technology. During December, Google bought six robotic
companies in a six-day period. Of their recent 12 acquisitions,
at least eight of them are associated with robotics. They have
remained quiet about their plans – which is not unheard of for
Google – but clearly robotic technology and machine vision are
seen as key components for the company.
One of those acquisitions, Industrial Perceptions, Inc. (IPI), is
an imaging company that spun off of the Menlo Park robotics
company Willow Garage. Before being acquired by Google in
December, IPI was reportedly focusing on building advanced
Robbie the Robot, Now on the