Sunday, March 5, 2017

So Why Teach Robotics?

By this time, reading my blog will have sensitized you to the word 'robot' and you might have been realizing that you keep hearing certain words out there all the time:  Robot, STEM, Coding and Maker-Faire. It's like these things are everywhere.  Toys, shows, news articles, initiatives, and there were plenty of photo-ops promoting these things at the White House the last eight years.  You might not have fully realized why.
When I have been out at teaching events, I have been asked why I am doing this with my kids.  The implication in the question has sometimes been an undercurrent of 'why are you forcing them and pushing them so hard'.  My response is usually about how you can't force kids to do this - especially at this level.  And that is true.  But there is actually a more fundamental set of reasons, and they come from my husband's and my background as well as insights we have been fortunate enough to have from our careers.  It's about survival.

President Obama and the many science fairs he sponsored
at the White House to bring attention to STEM and
robotics.  Here a FIRST team showing him their robot.
My husband was a refugee, someone who made it on one of the last helicopters out of Vietnam and it would take many paragraphs to tell you how close it was to not.  His father, an interpreter for the US Army and employee at the embassy, was a dead-man walking if they didn't make it out.  It was hard when they got here.  So hard.  There are years of memories he refuses to talk about.  His mother still cries about him getting a job when he was 12 to help the family.  That was back when kids could deliver papers and make money.  We really feel for the the kids at the community center and one reason it is so important our children work there as they need to understand.  He studied hard, got into MIT, always worked on the side, started multiple tech companies and provided employment for now numbering almost 1000 people.  He is always innovating and scrambling - you can't get the loss of his home, possessions, family, and country out of him - no matter how much he succeeds.  Not bad for a refugee helped by the government.  

My history is also not so rosy.  We talk about globalization and I lived in auto-town so it all started for us in the early 1970s - I watched what happened to Flint, Lansing and Detroit in front row seats.  We were in the middle of it and in the chain.  It hurt.  There are weird things my husband laughs at me for - like my refusal to pick fruit.  It connotes something else for me.  Pumping gas - I LOVE having someone do it for me as I did it every summer to help at my dad's business.  We all pitched in at the family business as it was needed, I can't stand a dirty car as I had a business washing and cleaning cars with my mom at one point to make needed money.  Health insurance, didn't have it until I got my first job out of college.   The insecurity and economic problems not having it caused for my family are profound and will haunt us all until my generation dies (due to pre-existing conditions of an employee of my dad's).  And we still are insecure about health insurance even today as my husband and I have almost always worked in new start-ups -- we don't get it until we grow the company big enough.  When Mitt Romney instituted his plan for Massachusetts - it was such a relief - we could get insurance to fill the gaps while we grew our companies after COBRA ran out.  Today, my doctor suspects I have a genetic problem with classes of medications (which caused my health problems last year).  But he and I know I can't test for it yet - not until the health insurance debacle going on now gets settled, lest I get marked with a pre-existing condition as we have to change insurance so often because we keep starting tech companies and having to move insurance.  I had to learn to be scrappy too.  I watched people without skills who made so much fun of me studying - realize too late that the jobs they expected to be there after they graduated high school evaporate.  I was getting out - that was how my jaw was set.  I might have a fancy education and letters behind my name, but I will do whatever it takes and whatever needed.  Fold cardboard, wash cars, whatever.   My kids NEED that mindset - that is how kids will survive in the global economy.   There is nothing on my robot team that pisses me off more than when a kid refuses a task because it is 'beneath them'.  Fast way for a tongue lashing by me (and additional cruddy jobs to be assigned).  

So while we are extremely comfortable (unless some health calamity happens combined with a policy change) - our mindset is not.  You can't take the refugee out of the successful businessman.  And we are looking forward at the skills needed to constantly reinvent yourself (as we have done ourselves) and know that schools aren't teaching them at all.  If they won't wake up and do it - then it is our job and we aren't going to slack off on that.  Hence the robotics.  It is a double bonus as it is not just the lessons in grit and how to learn and master anything needed and innovate and problem solve and technical skills and teamwork and on and on that this competition allows us to mentor.  It is robotics itself.  

We are pretty active in our two fields - mine is now being called soft robotics and wearable electronics and his is voice recognition and machine learning - both pretty hot and we are early innovators so are often asked to serve on task forces or advisory councils or serve on boards for start-ups.  For the last few years, I had the opportunity to be part of a set of informal advisors to the undersecretary of commerce under Obama.  What engineers and economists have known for awhile is that while manufacturing left the USA for cheeper labor years ago; as other world economies improved and thus their labor rates increased, there would be a point in the future where the cost to manufacture goods at home would be equal to the cost to manufacture them abroad because there are added costs of shipping, time delays, restrictions in shipping certain batteries, inefficiencies of working across languages/time zones and international issues of intellectual property.  While the labor rates would never equal US labor rates, if automation was added, the point where that cross over occurred could be pushed earlier than later.  And when you add in the consumer trend of desiring mass customization - time is money and you just can't wait for the product to come by boat.

It would happen in waves and at different times for different products/industries.  A local company called Dragon Innovation started out of iRobot and services small companies who want to manufacture their ideas (especially kickstarter ideas) has a great chart that takes into account the methods (textile, plastic, etc) and the number of units.  Below a certain number and it is far more efficient to manufacture in the USA, above in China.  And every year that wages rise in China and other alternative countries and robotics advances in the USA, that number of units gets higher.  Back in 2000, when we decided to make 15,000 e-textile blankets for Lands End with Polartec, we were able to do it 100% in the USA here in Massachusetts.  (I know so many textile manufacturing companies here - so much was coming back to the USA in 2000 and later to make bags, hats, blankets, etc. - there is little excuse for not making something here if you want to).  

I have long been a believer in local manufacturing, and as you all know I struggle mightily to manufacture the lion share of my threads with the original western companies.  I am offered and know the low labor rate makers who could make some bad knock-offs or I could screw over my friends in France and England who just do it right in search of profit, but I don't.  I believe in manufacturing jobs as a vital part of good economies.   It would be incredibly short sighted.

A little known fact is that the Obama administration spent years preparing for this shift and return of manufacturing to the USA.  My role was to give advice to the commerce department on my field of high-tech textiles; high value added textiles and where the sticking points were to prevent more manufacturing.  What things the government could do to accelerate the transition and capture those emerging and returning industries.  I had led a standards development and had led the largest scale manufacturing runs in the US and China at that point in this emerging industry.  We had been spinning our wheels trying to get over a hump - and standards are one of the reasons.  And a little known fact is that there is quite a bit here, there is a law that keeps critical military goods (think ballistic vests) from being outsourced overseas to ensure military readiness and an intact supply chain.  (Again, if you can take less profit for principal - you can manufacture here).  We also needed integrated manufacturing facilities where job training in textile work could happen (something lost) as well as small scale prototyping and short runs could be done.  And places where electronic testing of e-texitle goods could happen; something that can't happen in China yet because they have built their system on regional manufacturing.  Hence Manufacture NYC happened and a massive investment in a textile consortium in MA occurred last year led by MIT.  All targeted on these specific issues to increase the return of textiles to the USA.  

Part of this is the investment in robotics.  Automation drives the productivity and brings that cross-over point closer to now and the number of units up.  Robotics is hot in Massachusetts - super hot.  There is a new center called MassRobotics located in Richard's building and I have enjoyed attending many of the business consortium meeting with my husband - funny how our fields are converging.  I just invited to my technical conference a company that is working on a robotic sewing system for shirts.  I see a significant return of clothing manufacturing on the horizon.   

I highly recommend reading the book The Industries of the Future by Alec Ross.  It should be required reading for all teenagers so they can understand where to focus their studies.  While there will always be disrupting technologies we can't predict - there are trends there that are totally obvious.  Robotics is chapter 1.

Mr. Ross doesn't come at it as yet again another person ignoring the worker.  He starts out with his experience growing up in Appalachia and is about my age - so during the transition to a global economy.  So this brings up the second point of why robotics.  It is not to be at the forefront of invention, it is how to be on the manufacturing side as well.  One of the enormous problems we have in the US is that the workforce training is not in line with the workforce needs.  There are 200,000 open jobs in in the US alone for programmers yet few schools teach basic programming.  Companies are crying for machinists.  Manufacturing today is all about robotics and automation.  It is about designing the work flow of the robot, maintaining it, working with them, setting up lines, programming them, etc.  So the skills for the manufacturing worker are nothing like those of the auto worker of my youth.  Nothing close.  Spend an evening watching 'How its Made' on TV.  Half my career was spent going in and out of production facilities as I was part of a team that designed manufacturing machinery.  Manufacturing today is not what you think.
Robots helping a local manufacturer make custom mosaics
I just had a deck built by the This Old House guys.  Perhaps you have been watching that program and would have noted the visit to the company which made wood products for the Arlington Arts and Crafts House.  They made my rails and balustrades to match the old part of my house.  Totally robotic craftsmanship of the carving/turning.  So an understanding of wood craft and robotics was required.  The company across from Richard at the Design and Innovation Center?  A fine arts mosaic company - uses robots to place the tiles.  No more Italian companies exist anymore to do this type of custom work - too labor intensive.  So the workers work with the robots to do the job.   Ted Acworth and I had lunch with Richard last summer to talk about our joint work in old art industries and applying new technologies to it.  Not a coincidence, he coaches robotics too.  Take a look inside an Amazon fulfillment facility powered by a local MA company or the robotic warehouses that allows LEGO to continue to manufacture their toys in Europe.  

At least a two year technical degree is needed to do any of this.  So familiarity with robots and their basic concepts will be required to get a plant job.  And there will be many, many of these jobs, but people aren't trained for them.  That is the real problem that needs to be attacked and why you heard about ideas from the last White House about free community college education, realignment of local community college coursework to the needs of the local manufacturing industry (happening in MA), coding classes for kids, robotics and STEM initiatives and maker fairs.   Anything to get the kids moving in the right direction...

That is why I teach robotics.  It is about preparing the kids in my care for the world they will live in and how to survive and I hope, thrive in it.  That is why it is so important to bring robotics to underprivileged kids - the kids who can use those skills to bring them out of service jobs and into good paying manufacturing jobs - or perhaps to become an engineer and change their life like it did for both my husband and I.   

So if you have a kid or a grandchild...think about this.


  1. You need to change that last instruction. Whether you have kids or grandkids is irrelevant, if you are under 40 (and maybe under 60). Too many people have given ZERO thought to how the job market is changing and how quickly it is changing. First of all, traditional manufacturing jobs that pay $30 an hour with benefits will never happen again without strong unions, and aren't likely to happen again anyway for the reasons you set out. But it isn't just manufacturing or even blue collar jobs. Lawyers and accountants are already being replaced by AI, and programmers are starting to be replaced by AI as well. When was the last time you dealt with a bank teller? Most mortgage loans are being processed and approved by algorithm. The next question is what do you do when somewhere between 20% and 40% of your population is completely unemployable? That is the expected percentage beyond which social unrest is expected to make a society unsustainable. If you think your job is safe and you haven't looked at the future of automation, artificial intelligence and 3d printing; odds are pretty good that you are fooling yourself. I'm a 52-year-old self-employed lawyer, and I pretty well expect that I will be able to make a living as long as I need to. If I were 10 years younger I wouldn't be so sure.

  2. I'm old enough to remember the shock wave that passed across America when the then USSR launched Sputnik in 1959. This resulted in a national push to foster interest an achievement in science and engineering in schools across the country and the race with the Russians culminating in the lunar landing of Apollo 11 in 1969.
    Many of us were caught up in this process and went on to become my generations' workers in these fields. Some of us went into basic science,or engineering and some of us went into clinical/applied science,like me. Some did both. My room mate in medical school was a EE(electrical engineer for those not familiar.)
    I believe a national effort is required again, and Obama's administration shouldn't have been so quiet about it.
    Mike Rowe (Dirtiest Jobs, Somebody's Got To Do It) has testified several times before Congress. His message boils down to an assertion that we need to make work "cool" again. Which means, of course, higher social status and rewards for people in jobs that have come to be looked down on in our society because they didn't require a college degree.
    That's not to say that they don't require years of training and experience. A master plumber or master welder, woodworker, etc., is just as worthy of respect and financial success as an academically trained individual.
    One more point: We're running out of people who know how to fix things. Tricia has commented on many occasions about the attrition in craftspeople and that they can't get anyone interested enough to pass the knowledge to.
    We need to make working with your hands as cool as working with your head to attract individuals to these jobs. Mike Rowe commented in his testimony that there are large numbers of positions for welders in this country going unfilled due to lack of enough people with these skills.
    I agree with Tricia, someone is going to have to fix all of those robots.