MMS Blog

What Makes Smart Robots Smart?

Robots don’t always move like robots. For example, Productive Robotics’ collaborative OB7 glides smoothly through its routine, exhibiting none of the snappy awkwardness that once characterized virtually all robotic automation. Watch closely, and you’ll also notice that the arm moves slightly different from the way the human manipulated it during the teaching process. “We show the robot where to go, but it figures out its own way to get there,” says Zac Bogart, CEO. 

Although such technology could justifiably be called “smart,” the OB7 need be only so smart as to eliminate the need for traditional robot programming. “We use ‘smart’ algorithms to plan and govern the motions, but we don't apply learning or neural networks or anything like that,” Mr. Bogart says.

Pandemic Proves Value of Manufacturing Software Automation

Two recent projects demonstrate the potential of digital manufacturing in translating life-saving ideas to real-world products, both at scale and in enough time to make a difference.

The first is a ventilator designed by a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota to be easy to use, and, of more immediate concern, easy to manufacture quickly. The second is a facemask from Zverse, a 20-employee design firm. Both relied on the same manufacturing partner to bring their ideas to fruition: Protolabs, a Minneapolis-area provider of CNC machining, injection molding and 3D printing services where automation extends beyond the shop floor. “Once an order is received, our software automates much of the manual engineering and skilled labor that is normally required to manufacture parts,” a company representative explained via email. “As a result, in many cases we are able to quote orders in minutes and ship parts as soon as the same day ordered.”

Manufacturing Association Aids Shop’s Pivot to Ventilator Parts

Wolfram Manufacturing in Austin, Texas usually uses its multitasking machines to produce parts for oil and gas and heavy industry, but the coronavirus pandemic had the company wondering if it could produce parts for much-needed ventilators. It started reaching out to different organizations, including the Austin Regional Manufacturers Association (ARMA), to see if it could help. “I don't even know if there are parts that we can make in ventilators,” Wolfram Manufacturing President Nathan Byman said to ARMA Executive Director Ed Latson. “But if somebody has a need, please let us know. Pass it on to us.’” Within three days, the shop had an order for ventilator parts that needed to be complete by the next evening.

Wolfram got the call on a Sunday afternoon, and the parts needed to be ready to meet a critical shipping deadline at midnight on Monday. The order for 60 of these parts (which are roughly the size of a cell phone) came from SISU, an engineering firm that is helping to design a ventilator. Wolfram quickly mobilized five employees to open up the shop and start setting up to run the parts. “We got our setup done, we worked with raw material that we had in the shop, brought the part online and worked through the day and then hand delivered them to them Monday night,” Mr. Byman says.

Team Thinking Helps Donson Machine with Nickel Alloy Ventilator Part Production

The picture here might look ordinary: a bunch of guys standing around. Not so. The setting is the concrete apron to the high-bay loading area near the front entrance of Donson Machine, a contract manufacturer in Alsip, Illinois. The picture shows the company’s management team considering their options to meet the urgent needs of its customers for ventilator components to respond to COVID-19. Normally, the group would huddle indoors, but meeting in fresh air to obtain as much distance as the group practically could was the appropriate alternative.

Leading the meeting seen here are brothers Joe and Jim Bettinardi, president and CEO respectively, but only Joe is visible with his back to the rollup door. Donson Machine was a recent MMS Top Shops winner in the category of machining technology. Joe Bettinardi says the times right now reinforce an important point about technology and this shop’s application of it:

Metalworking Activity Collapses as Coronavirus Forces Broad Economic Contraction

With a reading of 41.0, the Gardner Business Index (GBI): Metalworking reported the lowest reading in its more than eight-year history. Gardner Intelligence’s review of the six underlying industry components — whose average is calculated for the reading — observed all-time lows for new orders, exports and employment.

It is important to remember that these readings represent the breadth of change occurring within the metalworking industry, not the rate of decline. As such, these low readings indicate only that a large proportion of metalworking manufacturers reported some decreased level of business activity. The reading does not quantify the magnitude of the downward change.