Monday, January 1, 2018

Is there anything on the horizon that will challenge the dominance of smartphones?

I was born in the late sixties in India. In the early seventies, our home had only a few appliances that used electricity – a couple of fans, few light bulbs, and a radio. As the middle class in India started catching up to the western standards of living, by late nineties my family in India had acquired televisions, video cassette players, audio cassette players, refrigerators, phones, washing machines, food processors, evaporative coolers, water heaters, etc. Our family was not an early adaptor of technology. By the time my family was ready to buy a new gadget, there were at least another hundred million families in developing economies that were acquiring the same gadget. Each new gadget had a market size of few tens of billions of US dollars and its wide-scale adoption added hundreds of thousands of jobs to the manufacturing sector worldwide. The growth in the sale of the manufactured products was a proven strategy to grow the economy.
 
I came to the US in nineteen ninety. We acquired a large number of electronic gadgets over the twenty year period including camcorders, digital cameras, navigation systems, cell phones, personal digital assistants, voice recorders, CD players, MP3 Players, handheld game consoles, alarm clocks, digital wrist watches, pedometers, televisions, DVD players, cordless phones, etc. Every year there was a new and exciting electronic gadget on the market that was on our wish list. The list of must-have products was growing and new hardware companies were springing everywhere to offer new products. Middle-class consumers have been fueling the economic growth and raising the standards of living for people through expansion of the global manufacturing sector.
 
The consumer electronic landscape started changing with the arrival of iPhone in 2007. My wife was an early adopter. She was using her iPhone to play music and get driving directions. She did not need her navigation system or her MP3 player. Soon the camera on her upgraded iPhone was quite decent and she abandoned her digital camera. Her wrist watch and the alarm clock on her nightstand were the next items to disappear.
 
Products made obsolete by smartphones (Cordless Phone Image Source: https://www.vtechphones.com/; Pedometer Image Source: https://www.amazon.com/; Digital Alarm Clock Image Source: https://www.amazon.com/; Hand held Game Consoles Image Source: https://www.forbes.com/; MP3 Players Image Source: http://www.ebay.com/; GPS Navigation System Image Source: http://www.navigadget.com; Digital Camera Image Source: https://www.bestbuy.com; Camcorder Image Source: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/; Electronic Voice Recorder Image Source https://www.amazon.com/; Personal Digital Assistant Image Source: http://itsolutiontest.blogspot.com/; Scanner Image Source: https://www.amazon.com/; Radio Image Source: https://www.amazon.com)



The list of products impacted by smartphones includes: (1) digital cameras, (2) video cameras, (3) navigation systems, (4) personal digital assistants, (5) MP3 Players, (6) voice recorders, (7) handheld game consoles, (8) alarm clocks, (9) pedometers, (10) cordless phones, (11) radio, and (12) scanners. Some people are also using smartphones as calculators, barcode readers, searchlights, mirrors, remote controls, keys, translators, wallets, and paperweights. All signs indicate that smartphones will make many more products vanish from the market over the next few years. Recent media reports are touting the ability of smartphones to function as metal detectors, digital projectors, and mosquito repellents! This phenomenon has never been seen before. Usually, a new product made a product with similar functionality obsolete. For example, DVD players made video cassette players obsolete. Smartphones are simply absorbing the functionality found in other products and altering the consumer electronic product landscape.
 
So far large screen TVs, high-quality headphones, and health monitoring systems (e.g., fit bits) appear to be immune from smartphones’ takeover. As I am writing this blog post, I am realizing that with the exception of a TV, a couple of headphones, and few fit bits, we have not bought any new electronic gadget in the last three years. Every few weeks, we get excited about new apps for our smartphones and we are constantly discussing which smartphone to get next. However, we are simply not keeping up with our previous pace of consumer-electronic hardware purchase. Smartphones have altered consumer behaviors and expectations and have ushered in the era of the app-based economy. 

Cars and homes depicted in sci-fi movies have not yet materialized. However, smartphones have fundamentally changed the way humans communicate, commute, shop, and bank. They have also opened up new channels for news delivery, advertisement and entertainment. Many people are now attached to their smartphones and cannot imagine life without them. The fear of not being to check one’s smartphone is now a recognized phobia. Twenty-four seven connectivity makes is difficult for people to disengage from work and induces a high level of stress. Smartphones are being blamed to cause several different kinds of sleep disorders. Smartphones have had the biggest impact on daily lives of humans since the advent of personal computers and fundamentally changed the cultural norms and human behaviors.

A reasonably good quality smartphone costs between $500 and $1000. Most people look forward to upgrading their smartphones to newer models in two (or fewer) years. Many previous electronic products such as digital cameras were shared by members of the family. Smartphones are not meant to be shared. Everyone needs to have their own smartphone. This is fueling growth in smartphone sale. Annual smartphone sales volume has already crossed the one billion mark. Soon revenues generated from smartphone sale will be more than one trillion US dollars. Smartphones have fundamentally altered the consumer electronics landscape and had a profound impact on the industry. Most high technology companies want to a part of this action and are launching their own smartphones. If this trend were to continue and the popularity of ride-sharing apps slow down the sale of automobiles, then smartphones might take over the automotive industry in terms of worldwide sales revenues. Smartphones currently appear indispensable and imagining life without them is not possible.
 
Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher said that change is the only constant in our lives. I am sure that dominance of smartphones (at least in the current form) won’t last forever. I am beginning to wonder what will replace smartphones. With easy access to the cloud, we don’t need to do any serious computing on the handheld devices. Miniaturizing is creating powerful sensors that can be easily integrated into other items carried by people. The key innovation offered by smartphones was the touchscreen-based user interface. The next generation brain-machine interfaces might reduce reliance on touchscreen interfaces. If augmented reality-based glasses become popular and everyone starts wearing them, then it will be easy to simply add smartphone functionalities to them. They will certainly provide a better display and sound quality than smartphones. People have been talking about smart clothing for a while. Would smartphones survive in the current form if smart clothing idea takes off?
 
Is there anything on the horizon that will challenge the dominance of smartphones?

Thursday, July 6, 2017

2017 NIST Agile Robotics for Industrial Automation Competition (ARIAC)

This year NIST organized a simulation based competition called Agile Robotics for Industrial Automation Competition (ARIAC). The idea was to move away from traditional robots that execute preprogrammed motion. Teams were challenged to build a system that can dynamically respond to failures in grasping, defective parts, and priority orders. Teams were expected to do this by using the minimum number of sensors. The task in the competition was focused on building assembly kits. The robot had to pick parts from bins and a conveyor and place them on automated guided vehicles.

Please see https://www.nist.gov/news-events/news/2016/01/nist-launches-international-competition-make-robots-more-agile for details on this competition.

My group fielded a team in ARIAC. Team members included Matt Buckley and Brual Shah. Competition results were announced on July 5, 2017. Please see https://www.osrfoundation.org/ariac-finals-results-announced/ for details. I am happy to report that our team won the competition.

You can check out our
competition entry in the video shown below.


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Effectively Utilizing Advanced Manufacturing Requires a New Approach to Closing Skills Gap

Advances in manufacturing technologies are fundamentally changing the nature of work at manufacturing enterprises. As new technologies are deployed, a large number of workers find themselves with obsolete skills and lose jobs. On the other hand, companies that are contemplating deploying new manufacturing technologies are unable to find workers with the right skills and hence many available manufacturing positions remain vacant.

The rate of rapid changes in manufacturing technologies is pointing to a future where major manufacturing technology refresh will occur every five to ten years. This means that a worker will need to face the challenge of skill obsolescence multiple times in a typical career. Overcoming this challenge using the current workforce education and training paradigm is not practical. Not finding a scalable solution to this challenge will lead to a major disruption to the way of life for the middle class.

Over the last few years, I have interacted with workers, companies, and colleges and discussed challenges and opportunities in the manufacturing workforce training area. Based on my analysis, the main challenges are the following:

  1. Acquiring new manufacturing skills often requires six months or more. Displaced workers are economically vulnerable and simply do not have cash reserves to complete the training. 
  2. Many displaced workers do not have math and programing prerequisites to learn advanced manufacturing technologies. Completing these prerequisites takes extra time. 
  3. Many advanced manufacturing technologies are expensive. Colleges and training institutes are unable to acquire them in sufficient quantities to rapidly build the capacity needed to retrain the workforce. 
  4. Workers are unable to travel to far away training locations for long periods of times to complete the training due to family constraints and/or economic considerations.
The workforce retraining will need to occur frequently. Therefore, simply relying on government grants to sustain the current training models will not suffice. Manufacturing enterprises have embraced innovations and learned how to deliver personalized products at low costs with highly compressed schedules. Once we start viewing the workforce training enterprise as a part of the manufacturing supply chain, we realize that many principles that led to significant efficiency gains in manufacturing will be applicable to the work training as well. We should aim to realize a new workforce training enterprise with the following attributes:
  1. Enable trainees to participate in training remotely. 
  2. Accelerate the training process. 
  3. Reduce time needed to complete prerequisites. 
  4. Leverage spare capacity on existing machines to reduce capital investments.
Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to meet these needs. The solution will require development of new technologies and pedagogical tools to accelerate learning, commitment from individuals to life-long learning, and cultures at companies to incentivize acquisition of new skills. Government will also need to provide education based tax credits. Colleges will need to master the agile manufacturing principles to quickly roll out new programs to meet emerging needs. Addressing the workforce training challenge this will be a step towards solving the most pressing societal problem faced by the advanced economies.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Why Automation is a Key to Innovation?

Every week I see news items that identify automation as a major threat to jobs. This is beginning to paint automation as an enemy of financial well-being of a large segment of human population. However, there is a different side to the automation story. Automation has been a major force behind many modern innovations and associated industries. Unfortunately, the connection between automation and innovation has not received much attention in the media. 

Often automation has been presented as a means to eliminate the need for humans to do dull, dangerous, and dirty tasks. Moreover, the value of automation is often rationalized in terms of cost reductions. If automation is viewed only with this lens, then it basically comes across as an instrument to replace humans with machines and hence exacerbating employment prospects for many people. In many people’s mind automation is all about “dumb” machines doing the same task over and over in a monotonous way. Innovation requires human ingenuity and creativity, so automation cannot be farther away from being an enabler for innovation. This view is too myopic and prevents people from seeing the value of automation in enabling innovations and growing new industries.
 

Automation’s biggest contribution has been in assisting humans to overcome their inherent limitations in speed, strength, size, accuracy, consistency, and reaction time. Constraints associated with human capabilities ultimately limit what types of products can be realized with manual operations. Automation presents a solution to overcome these constraints. Once we think about automation from this perspective, we realize that automation can help us in realizing products that have complex shapes and small feature sizes and require high accuracy.
 

Automation has been leveraged to create many innovative products that cannot be made using manual operations. Here are few representative examples of innovations from the medical industry that were enabled by automation:
  • Computer Controlled Laser Machining: Computer controlled lasers have revolutionized machining. The software automatically controls the laser and can create really complex shapes on hard to machine metals in a matter minutes. Stents have been credited with saving many lives and they will simply not exist without computer controlled laser machining to realize complex shapes with small features.
  • 3D Printing: 3D printing epitomizes automation. A computer analyzes three dimensional model of the desired part and generates instructions so that a machine can automatically build it layer by layer. Shapes that cannot be produced by any means can be realized easily using 3D printing. Customized hearing aids will simply not exist without automation. 3D printing is also enabling customized implants and prosthesis. 
  • Automated Printed Circuit Board Assembly: Robots and motion control stages have revolutionized how printed circuit boards are assembled today. Automation enables printed circuit boards to utilize very small components that are packed very tightly in a confined space to create lightweight miniature electronics. The quality of life for diabetes patients will significantly deteriorate without glucose meters. Modern glucose meters rely on lightweight miniature electronics to function. These products will simply not be possible without automation in manufacturing of printed circuit board assemblies.
In summary, many innovative medical devices will simply cease to exist without the “helping hand” from automation.
 

I am concerned that all the negative press about automation will create a backlash against it. We really need advances in automation to realize the next generation products that will improve the quality of life. Automation is certainly creating challenges for the workforce and we need to find a solution to address it. However, we need to acknowledge the value of automation in driving innovations.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

KUKA Innovation Award 2017

My group at the University of Southern California fielded a team in KUKA Innovation Award 2017 competition. Team members included Ariyan Kabir, Sarah Al-Hussaini, Abdullah Alsharhan, Vivek Annem, Iain Brookshaw, Qi Deng, Alec Kanyuck, Nithyananda Kumbla, Joshua Langsfeld, Rishi Malhan, Fadel Muci, Brual Shah, and Shantanu Thakar. 


After two preliminary rounds, our team was selected as one of the five finalists. Applicants for this award were expected to demonstrate an innovative robotic application using Kuka iiwa arms. Our team traveled to Hannover Messe in Germany to showcase our entry in the competition. This is one of the largest trade fair in the world. Usually, more than 250,000 visitors attend this trade fair. Distinguished visitors this year included Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany.

The focus of our application was automation of finishing processes such as grinding, sanding, and polishing. We combined planning, control, perception, learning, and augmented reality technologies to create a new robotic system for finishing operations. Our setup used two robots. The first robot held the part and the second robot manipulated the cleaning tool. We used external sensors to monitor the task progress.

Our application was significantly different from the traditional robotic applications in manufacturing. Robots in traditional manufacturing operations use pre-programmed motions to carry out the tasks. This idea only works when a robot is used is mass production application to make the same part over and over and this approach does not help in low volume production. An example of this is post-processing operations in additive manufacturing of custom parts. For metal based 3D printing, surface finishing operations are still manual and can take a very long time.

Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany walked past our booth (Image Source: Kuka)
Visitors at our Booth (Image Source: USC CAM)
Our Booth at Hannover Messe (Image Source: Kuka)

Picture at Awards Ceremony (Image Source: Kuka)

Our team with the Finalist Trophy (Image Source: USC CAM)

Manual surface finishing tasks are very tedious and time consuming and contribute significantly to the total cost in manufacturing. They also pose risks to the health of the workers. Our team believed that robots should do the tedious labor and humans should perform high level decision making in surface finishing operations. This way, we can increase the productivity of human operators and improve their quality of life.

The automated finishing system needed to manage the interaction between robots, tools, and the part to be finished. Robots needed to learn and optimize parameters on-the-fly for any given object and plan their moves. A perception system was also required for detection and localization, assessing surface quality, and ensuring safety. To achieve these goals, we integrated new planning and learning algorithms with the existing technology for perception and control.

Overall we received a lot of positive feedback on our demonstration. Many companies were interested in deploying our technology. Our team returned back to USC with a resolve to mature the technology and get it ready for deployment.