RoboBusiness Speaker: ‘Automate or Die’

RoboBusiness speaker Daniel Theobald, co-founder and chief innovation officer of Vecna, says until recently, large-scale use of mobile robotics in industry was still aspirational. But now, given increasing consumer expectations and global competition, "automate or die” is becoming an accepted idea in business.


RoboBusiness 2017 is a prime opportunity to learn from industry leaders such as Daniel Theobald, co-founder and chief innovation officer at Vecna Robotics. The Cambridge, Mass.-based company provides end-to-end automation solutions for supply chain, hospital, telepresence, and security uses.

Vecna, whose motto is “Better Technology, Better World,” is an RBR50 company as well as one of the top robotics employers in Massachusetts. Theobald is a co-founder and president of MassRobotics, a consortium devoted to helping local startups and international organizations develop, test, and commercialize their products and services in the state.

RoboBusiness, now in its 13th year, will include informative sessions, an expo hall of top vendors, and networking events for robotics suppliers and end users. At the conference, which is on Sept. 27 and 28, 2017, in Santa Clara, Calif., Theobald will be discussing “How to Evolve a Robust and Cost-Competitive Supply Chain.”

Here, he shares some of his experiences with automation, as well as his thoughts on where robotics, artificial intelligence, and autonomous systems are headed.

What got you interested in robotics and AI, and how is it connected to what you’re now doing?

Theobald: I grew up in Silicon Valley in the ’70s and was fortunate enough to have access to computers and electronics classes in public school, starting in elementary school. I spent most of my free time rebuilding cars and motorcycles, building robots, doing electronics projects, programming my homemade Apple II+, and exploring the pre-Internet world of dial-up BBS [bulletin board systems].

Daniel Theobald Vecna
Vecna Chief Innovation Officer Daniel Theobald.

Given my limited childhood budget, I was familiar with many Silicon Valley Dumpsters as sources of parts for my projects. They included those of then-young Atari Corp., where I rescued many mostly OK video games from certain destruction.

During high school, I was chosen to represent the state of California at the Lawrence Livermore Supercomputer Program and got to program early AI algorithms on the CRAY computer.

At MIT, I worked on the Mars Rover program and designed the world’s first Internet-based Robot Programming Language using Version 1 of Java.

Today, I get to work with the world’s largest manufacturers, shippers, and retailers to take advantage of the robust systems we have developed at Vecna over the past two decades. Vecna’s portfolio includes an integrated suite of platforms able to autonomously handle everything from full pallets to individual parts and reliably and safely get them where they need to be, when they need to be there.

Which emerging technology or application excites you the most?

Theobald: It is exciting that mobile robotic technology is finally at a point where the demand is high enough and the costs are low enough to jump-start the mass adoption of these solutions.

Until recently, large-scale use of mobile robotics in industry was still aspirational, for a number of reasons. But now, given increasing consumer expectations and global competition, “Automate or Die” is becoming an accepted idea in business.

Even more exciting is seeing how technology can continue to make life better for everyone on the planet. Automation enables efficiency, which enables prosperity, which enables generosity, which enables solving many of the world’s toughest problems. These include access to food, clothing, shelter, education, loans, Internet, and security for everyone on the planet.

What are the biggest barriers to continued growth of the autonomous systems market?

Theobald: Currently, hype and unmet expectations. It is in the interest of everyone in the industry to keep expectations reasonable and then to exceed customer expectations. Hype and broken promises create a distrust of both the technology and the technologists, and those damage the entire industry.

One of the other biggest barriers to continued growth of the autonomous systems market is a lack of interoperability within the robotics industry. As robots become more prevalent for manufacturing and warehouses, it is getting harder to manage them all - especially if they’ve all been made by different companies.

Within logistics, there should be an expectation for robots from different vendors to carry out tasks collaboratively, and if they aren’t able to communicate with one another, this could create a potentially dangerous and inefficient situation.

Standards must be set for common interfaces among manufacturing and logistics software, to allow increased interoperability among these next-generation machines.

The robotics industry is in much the same state as the computer industry a few decades ago, where different systems couldn’t readily speak to each other. Computers didn’t become a staple on every desk - and now in our pockets - until they could.

Where do you expect robotics and AI use to grow the most in the next five years, and why?

Theobald: Expect to see an increased interaction between humans and robots. Complete lights-out automation will not be the norm for most industries. Instead, robots will be used to improve worker productivity and job satisfaction by taking on the unwanted parts of jobs that humans don’t find interesting or fulfilling.

With turnover rates as high as 300% for many manufacturing, shipping, and order-fulfillment jobs, employers are struggling to find and keep the staff they need to meet customer expectations. By strategically deploying robots as helpers and promoting the human workers to more value-added tasks, everybody wins.

What do you think your session offers to the robotics developer and end-user community?

Theobald: With all the hype around robotics, it can be hard to remember that robots are just a tool to be used - when appropriate - to achieve a competitive advantage. It’s crucial to consider the overall system - from end to end - and ensure that we aren’t smashing a square peg into a round hole just for the sake of deploying a robot. The success of both end users and robot developers depends on showing ROI and robust, scalable operations.

Often overlooked is the consideration of factors like the time and cost of implementation, overall robustness of the system, and proper exception handling - “How does the system behave when there is a problem? Also overlooked is the cost-to-benefit ratio of each part of the system.

One effective approach to finding answers to many of these questions is the use of simulation to find the answers to a large number of “What if…” questions. But even without the benefit of robust simulation, many of these questions can be answered satisfactorily with spreadsheet-level calculations.

Which part of the process should be automated first? Which is going to provide the most value with the lowest risk? Taking an incremental approach to automation is now more possible than ever, allowing you to evolve your system rather than redesign from scratch.

What are you most looking forward to at RoboBusiness?

Theobald: It is great to get together with customers and colleagues from around the world and to catch up on the latest and greatest work that is going on in the industry.

I’m also looking forward to promoting the great work that MassRobotics is doing to foster the international robotics community.



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