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What is the Future of Robotics

Big Theory Science #8 - Ginny Foster - The Future of Robotics

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Transcript

Aaron McCloud:
Hello. Hello, everybody. This is Aaron McCloud with Big Theory Science. I have a very special guest today, Ginny Foster. She is an electrical engineer who helps people scale manufacturing operations with robotics. She serves as the market development manager at Neff Power, an industrial automation distributor and robotics partner with locations across the entire United States. And she is also a guest speaker and talks about robotics, industrial automation, engineering, and growth mindset. Let's keep going. She has a degree in Electrical Engineering from St. Louis University and a degree in Español, espectacular, from Washington University in St. Louis. And her name appears on several patents awarded by, whoa, the United States Patent and Trademark Office, as well as the Canadian Intellectual Property Office. And she's a certified project management professional and is passionate about developing relationships and problem-solving. Last but not least, she is enthusiastic to share her knowledge about the scalability of robotics and how advancements in technology are making robotics easy to use. It's a very, very big pleasure to have you on, Ginny.
Ginny Foster:
Absolutely. Aaron, thank you so much for having me. It's an honor and a pleasure to be here.
Aaron McCloud:
Thank you.
Ginny Foster:
I am actually really excited. I'm really excited to be on this podcast because I've seen some of your other episodes, and you take on really big topics. So, I'm really glad that you're taking on robotics as your next big topic.
Aaron McCloud:
Yeah. Robotics is awesome. It's the future. Right?
Ginny Foster:
This is true. This is so true. And I'm really tickled pink that I get to be part of this whole new wave into the future.
Aaron McCloud:
So, what exactly do you do at Neff Power?
Ginny Foster:
So, I help manufacturers identify and source the right robotic and industrial automation solutions for their applications. I connect engineers and technicians with the right industrial automation solutions, the right robotics, and the right training to give them the confidence to become the go-to robotics champion at their company. So my journey started with a degree in electrical engineering. And leading up to and then after graduation, I was involved in a series of projects. And with each of these projects, I learned how to better identify the problem and then define the solution. And it was in that process of identifying the problem and defining the solution that I realized you could define the solution in such a way that it was new, useful, and nonobvious. And those three characteristics, new, useful, and nonobvious, those are the three characteristics of patentability. My name is on five patents spanning three projects. So without going into much detail about the technology on the patents, I do want to talk about what I learned in the journey, and that is that I loved sharing these solutions with people in the field. And I wanted to know-- after graduation, I wanted to know if that was a real job because if it was, that was the job which I had the most fun. And so, I looked it up. And it turns out it is the job. It is real. It's called sales engineer. And so, I tailored my resume to fit that of a sales engineer based on these three projects, and it worked. I was able to land my first career job in heavy manufacturing at an international foundry. And I am so grateful to my coworkers and mentors because they taught me so much. And I find that what I do now absolutely ties into what I learned in a heavy manufacturing environment.
Aaron McCloud:
Wow, that is awesome. That's so cool to see somebody so passionate about robots. I'm super stoked to have you on. It's so cool. What are the different levels of engineering, robotics, manufacturing, automation, and all that?
Ginny Foster:
So, at Neff Power, we connect the engineers with the manufacturing challenges to the world-class brands and solutions in industrial automation and robotics. Neff Power is an industrial automation distributor. We're also a robotics partner, and we serve a growing area in the United States. And robotics is a subcategory of industrial automation. So we serve a wide variety of different categories, structural aluminum framing and guarding, safety devices and sensing solutions, electrical control, motion control, pneumatics, hydraulics, and robotics. So, these are all the categories of industrial automation that Neff Power supports. And I really want to talk about why robotics is important. We're talking about what it is. Right? But without the context, it's just kind of this exciting thing that's in the future. Why is it in the future? Well, because every day, 2000 baby boomers retire from manufacturing jobs across the United States.
There are now an unprecedented number of job openings for every job seeker. It's almost a two-to-one ratio. So, we are talking about robotics because it is a solution to the problem of labor shortage. We now have increasingly capable robots and artificial intelligence systems that can take on tasks that were previously performed by humans. So 2020 was the year of the pandemic, and it was also the first year in which nonautomotive robotic applications were greater than automotive robotic applications. Why is this important? Because up until 2020, the automotive industry was the only industry that utilized robotics. And 2021 marked the year in which more robots were deployed in the United States than ever before. There were 39,708 robots, and that's 28% more robots than in 2020. So, looking into the future, we see this huge exponential growth of robotics in the United States.
Aaron McCloud:
Wow, that's crazy. So, are they implementing them in healthcare and stuff like that? Outside of car manufacturing, what's the next couple of biggest industries?
Ginny Foster:
All varieties of industries, food and beverage, aerospace, any type of manufacturing and production, distribution, warehousing, any type of pick-and-place application, anything where you need to put something in a box and put the box on a pallet. These applications are where we're seeing growth in robotics.
Aaron McCloud:
So, what caused this sudden-- was it COVID or something? What caused this sudden mentality of, "Hey, we should just start getting robots"?
Ginny Foster:
Well, I think after the pandemic, there was a kind of enlightenment, and people began to realize that robots don't get sick. Robots don't take a vacation. Robots are highly repeatable. They're highly scalable. They don't get tired, and they work lights out, 24/7.
Aaron McCloud:
I kind of wish I was a robot. I would--
Ginny Foster:
I don't think-- [laughter]
Aaron McCloud:
The thing is I feel--
Ginny Foster:
I don't think the purpose--
Aaron McCloud:
I feel like, I guess, sort of the indoctrination of the US-- some people have jobs. They behave like robots in their job. We work. We wake up when the sun comes up. We go to sleep when the sun comes down. We work. We work. We work. So we're kind of like robots, like biological robots, I guess.
Ginny Foster:
I don't think that serves the purpose of humanity. I don't think humans are meant to be like robots. I think robots are meant to be like robots and humans are meant to do something else. We're meant to be more creative. I mean, as humans, the things that we do naturally are communicate, problem solve, and create. That's where we see the most enjoyment out of life and purpose. So, I see robotics as facilitating growth in this area, both for individuals as well as humanity as a whole.
Aaron McCloud:
So, manufacturing robots, they don't have a sense of creativity, right? Do they have AI? Is it very narrow AI built into them, or how deep does the AI go in these robots?
Ginny Foster:
So yes, they do have AI. I don't want to say that they have sentience, but they have AI. So, within manufacturing, there are different types of robots. And manufacturing recognizes robots in two ways based on safety standards. So safety standards recognize robotic arms with a fixed base, and they also recognize mobile robots. And as of right now, these are two separate categories. And as of yet, nobody has actually put a robotic arm on top of a mobile base and made it safe yet. But it is coming. So robotic arms, let's talk about robotic arms. These are multi-axis arms with a fixed base. So first, what does this look like? What does a multi-axis arm with a fixed base look like? So imagine an articulated robot arm. It has a gripper at the end, and it has a reach that extends in a radius around the base. And it can pick up an object, move the object through space, change the orientation of the object, and then set it down again within the radius of reach. There are two different types of robotic arms. There are industrial robotic arms, and there's collaborative robotic arms. And I think what you're getting at with your question about the artificial intelligence and what's the extent of it-- I think that's the area of collaborative robots that you're going to be really excited to hear about.
So, let's define the two first. So industrial robots, these are the robots that operate at high speed. So they have high speed, high velocity, and pinch points. And for this reason, they require physical barriers to separate the human from the robot. And a human usually has to stand on the other side of a safety fence while the industrial robot is performing its operations. The collaborative robot is the robot that allows for a safe human and robot interaction. So these are robots and humans working side by side in a safe way. A person can literally walk up to a collaborative robot and hand it a workpiece and still be considered safe. So, there's a trick to utilizing all of these technologies together, and that's that with the right advanced safety devices, you can actually make an industrial robot behave like a collaborative robot. And we do this all the time. We have a robotics lab at Neff Power in which we demonstrate robotic applications. And in our lab, it's both a collaborative robot and an industrial robot. And we're able to perform these live demos by incorporating speed and separation monitoring and stop state monitoring.
So, what that looks like is that as a person approaches the robot, it will slow down, and then as the person enters the radius of reach, the robot will come to a complete stop. And that's where the person can enter that robotic environment, adjust the equipment, clean the area, move a workpiece, and then as the person slowly backs away, that's when the robot begins moving at a slow speed. And then finally, when the person leaves the safety zone, the robot can pick up and start operating at full speed again. So those are the robotic arms from manufacturing. And to your question about artificial intelligence, I think the partnership of artificial intelligence with robotics is seen with the advanced machine vision that allows both industrial as well as collaborative robots to behave in a safe way around humans.
Aaron McCloud:
So, I feel like, from what I understand-- so the industrial robots are sort of like, "I pick things up and put them down." Right? Arnold Schwarzenegger. And the collaborative robots are sort of the more intelligent. You're able to build more intelligent algorithms in them to make sure that those interactions are safe and all that stuff.
Ginny Foster:
Well, I mean, I see where you're coming from with that distinction, but that's really not where I would go with it at all. Industrial robots and collaborative robots, at this point in time in manufacturing, they both are equally-- I would say they're equally capable in terms of functioning with humans as long as the right safety devices are incorporated. It's the separation from humans, I think, that industrial robots, they tend to have a reputation of not being as smart. And truly, they get a lot of return on investment because they function at high speeds. So it's almost to someone's benefit, in fact, to choose a high-speed function that can also behave collaboratively when they're trying to get that return on investment for high-speed pick and place and for any kind of high-speed, repeatable application. Where we're seeing cobots shine, I think, is, in particular, the manufacturing tasks that really function best alongside people. And this is where it improves any kind of human capacity for efficiency, quality, and consistency. And really, cobots are the most popular solution to help maintain quality and consistency on repetitive and ergonomically challenging jobs that were previously performed by retired baby boomers. And that's why we're seeing their popularity increase right now.
So, what about all the people that say robotics are, right, controversial? They don't think robots are the way of the future. Robots are going to replace people's jobs one day. I mean, you go to Walmart, and now you have the self-checkouts in, but you still got the people at the door checking your receipt and all that kind of stuff. But what do you think about robots taking over as far as employment?
Well, I think that sounds a lot like the fixed mindset. The fixed mindset is rooted in the belief that we cannot grow, and the fixed mindset is afraid of change. And it does not enjoy learning new skills because to the fixed mindset, the act of learning a new skill is admitting that you're not innately good at something. And that's why there's a book that I would like to recommend. It's called Mindset by Carol Dweck. And in this book, she writes about another mindset. It's called the growth mindset. And when you have a growth mindset, challenges are opportunities. And learning is not a threat to your ego, but rather, it's a path to cultivate new skills and new abilities. And I wish I had read this while I was an engineering student because there are so many times that you have to try to do things over and over again. And it's truly with the joy in the attempt and the joy in the journey. That's where you find your resilience. And I think this book is a fantastic outline for how to truly find that in learning a new skill and learning a new application and in increasing your own abilities.
So, to that point, I want to say this. Robots do not replace people. Robots replace tasks, and this allows for people to level up. The robotics industry is growing, and there are numerous opportunities for people to level up by becoming knowledgeable about robotics. And at Neff Power, we get to be a part of this because we partner with engineers and technicians so that they have the confidence to become the go-to robotics person at their company. We have a team of robotic specialists who help you select the right end-of-arm tool, the right robot, and then we help you create a simulation video to show you how the robotics process would fit for your application within your production line before you even purchase. And additionally, we have robotic specialists who will train you on-site so that you have the confidence to be the in-house expert for your first robotic application.
So how do you think advancements in technology are making robots easier to use?
That is a great question, Aaron. So I think there have been so many changes with the human-robot interface, especially with touchscreen technology, that it's really lowering the learning curve, and it's making it so much more intuitive to program a robot and tell it to move from point A to point B. So, touchscreen technology, that's what we have on our smartphones. And I think it's conditioning us to be super comfortable. When somebody hands us a touchscreen, it's super easy and intuitive to figure out how that touchscreen works. We happen to have a seven-year-old visit our laboratory, and we wanted to know, "Okay. How long would it take a seven-year-old to learn how to use a touchscreen smart pendant?" And so, we put the pendant in his hand, and we put his toy car in the collaborative grippers, and we said, "Okay. Make the robot fly your car around." And it took him all of 35 minutes and 17 seconds. And you can see the video on our YouTube channel.
Cool, very cool. So besides seven-year-olds, who do you think will be able to use these robotic arms?
Aaron, anyone that has a manufacturing process that fits the four Ds, dull, dangerous, dirty, and dear. Dear tasks are the critical tasks, the ones that affect the bottom line. And out of all of these, the low-hanging fruits are the tasks that are repeatable and ergonomically challenging. Repeatable tasks are ones that you perform over and over again. And ergonomically challenging tasks are ones that really challenge the human joints, like shoulders, elbows, and wrists.
Aaron McCloud:
Okay. So ergonomically, I'm capable of doing this. So, what do you think about-- do you think that all businesses in the world, in the next 10 years, are going to have any of those two types of industrial robots or collaborative robots?
Ginny Foster:
Well, those are two types of robotic arms. And yes, I do believe that this is where the future is taking us. But Aaron, there's another type of robot, and we talked about it earlier. It's the mobile base. And I'm really curious to know because you mentioned it earlier when we were first introduced. You mentioned that there were little robots with wheels that were rolling up and down your sidewalk. And I'm really curious to know more about them.
Aaron McCloud:
Oh, yes, Jorge. That's what I've named him. So, I was driving past Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University the other day in Daytona Beach, and I get to a light. And I look over, and I see this robot just standing there on the sidewalk or sitting, whatever robots do. He's just existing there on the sidewalk. And the light was red, and all of a sudden, the light turns green. I go, and the robot starts going across the street. And I look in my rearview mirror, and I'm like, "Holy cow, man." This robot was just looking at all the cars and must have been sensing everything around it, and it was going on the sidewalk. And so, I was super curious. So I made a phone call, and. found out that it belongs to the technology department at the university. And pretty much, it just delivers food to people. That's all it does. It just delivers food. So it has a compartment inside, and the food goes in.
Ginny Foster:
Wow.
Aaron McCloud:
It goes to the people's house automatically by itself, delivers the food, and then returns back to the university. And yeah, when I first saw it, it just totally spooked me.
Ginny Foster:
Wow. So that sounds to me like an autonomous mobile robot. So there's two different types of mobile robots. One is an AMR, autonomous mobile robot, and the other one is an AGV, autonomous guided vehicle. And usually, the guided vehicles, they have to follow paths. So, there's usually a path on the ground, or there's waypoints along the way, and they follow them. And then if there's any kind of obstruction, they just stop. And some human has to reset them to continue them on their path. But the AMR is-- sounds like you just saw an AMR. And these are really amazing types of robots because they are actually navigating in real time. And Neff Power is partnered with the world-class leader in advanced machine vision that makes the LiDAR and the 3D cameras that are used in the real-time onboard navigation systems of AMRs.
Aaron McCloud:
Wow. So I would assume it uses many applications of narrow AI. Is it the same type of--
Ginny Foster:
Exactly.
Aaron McCloud:
--AI that Tesla and stuff would be using, like autonomous real cars and stuff?
Ginny Foster:
Yes. And technically, I'm probably not supposed to know this, but I do know that it is the same technology. Yes.
Aaron McCloud:
All right. Very good to know. So how do I get one of these robots? It could be very useful to fetch things for me. Jorge, fetch. Go get me a package. Go get me a cup of water or something.
Ginny Foster:
I know, right? I think that this area of robotics is one that we're seeing tremendous growth in right now. And we don't yet know which of them will become the go-to solution for industrial applications quite yet. But I do see that there is a potential future, definitely for mobile platforms, specifically autonomous mobile robots. There's a lot of solutions being developed right now. I don't know if they're available to the general public just because in my world, I deal so much with industrial automation. So, it's always for manufacturing applications because I think your home environment is extraordinarily different from your manufacturing environment. And I know that this type of technology is being developed right now. I mean, it's happening right now. So, it would not surprise me in any way that there would be one in the future. I just don't know which direction to point you yet for your own home automation.
Aaron McCloud:
I feel like it would be cheaper for me to just buy a big-- what did you call that robot? What type of technology is it? What kind of robot is it, autonomous robot? The one that walks--
Ginny Foster:
The AMRs?
Aaron McCloud:
The AMR. I feel like I just need to buy or build just an AMR that's just bigger. And then it'll be cheaper than buying a Tesla or something like that. I can just drive it on the sidewalk.
Ginny Foster:
Well, I mean, there's a lot of people right now who are designing and developing their own. And that's why there's actually a market for the advanced machine vision. And we're seeing a lot of start-up companies and a lot of engineers with ideas. They're using the onboard navigation algorithms and the real-time LiDAR and 3D cameras to create navigation algorithms and solutions so that they can drive around and navigate safely in real time. So, I know that it's a market, and it's growing. And I'm very sure that from this will come a really amazing solution. I do want to talk about the future because you've asked a lot of questions about where we are going in the future. And really, I think we're going towards a question. We are going to ask ourselves this question more and more in the coming years. And that is this. Is it humane to ask a person to do a task that a robot can perform better?
Aaron McCloud:
No. No, it's not. It's totally inhumane, 100% inhumane.
Ginny Foster:
Really, that is defining the new problem that we're going to be solving. That question, it's really asking ourselves to look into the future and to see what it is that is humane to ask a person to do. And that's where I think robots are coming in as the answer. Robots are coming in as the answer to the labor shortage. Collaborative robots are definitely coming in as the fastest route, the easiest learning curve to be able to deploy in a situation that needs automation. And then I think we're just going to be asking ourselves, "How can we grow so that we can support this new future?" Because it challenges us as people, and it's going to challenge humanity as a whole.
Aaron McCloud:
So, what do you say to anyone, a student or someone who aspires to be in robotics as a career, someone who's just getting into college, university? So, there's different levels and different categories, different fields of robotics. If someone wants to get into robotics, what advice would you give them?
Ginny Foster:
So, I did not know that I was going to get into robotics. If I was to go back five years ago and tell myself, "Ginny, guess what? In five years, you're going to be working with robots," I wouldn't have believed myself. So, I think that's why it's more important for students who are reaching and really striving to go somewhere and be someone and do something. I think that's why I recommend this book because it gives you the right mindset so that you can stretch yourself and have fun while doing it. And you don't know where you're going to land. You don't know what the next phase in your life will be. But at least, you're going to have fun doing it.
Aaron McCloud:
Learn along the way. Yeah, that's good advice. All right, Ginny. Well, it was an absolute pleasure having you on. You were an incredible guest. If you guys want to get a hold of her to talk to her about anything regarding robotic solutions or if you just want to say, "Hi, Ginny," you can contact her via her LinkedIn. You can also reach her through her company's YouTube channel, N-E-F-F Power, Neff Power. I'll put it in the description. And thank you so much for coming on. It was an absolute pleasure.
Ginny Foster:
Aaron, thank you so much for having me. This has been absolutely enjoyable, and I really look forward to doing it again.


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