The Frontier Series: How robotics and automation impacts every industry
March 5, 2018
Nic Radford, co-founder and chief technical officer of Houston Mechatronics, is a leading innovator in the AI, robotics and automation industry. Hank Torbert, a founder of The Frontier Conference, interviews him about advances in the industry.
You have been focused on automation and AI applications for your career and you are a leader in the field. Can you tell us some of the things you have done in the robotics and AI space?
During my 14-year career at NASA, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to develop amazing robots and mechatronic-related systems for the spaceflight industry. These included multiple generations of Robonaut, a humanoid robot designed to perform work on the International Space Station and also Valkyrie, a robot designed for humanitarian disaster relief applications. But I’ve also created other types of bio-inspired robot morphologies like spiders for in-space construction and robot snakes for inspection. At Houston Mechatronics, Inc., I’ve been primarily focused on developing a subsea robot platform named Aquanaut to disrupt how subsea work is performed. Aquanaut is able to perform work underwater like ROVS do without the need for expensive surface vessels that are annoying and costly tethers. The subsea manipulation techniques that Aquanaut performs involve several advances in autonomy involving: learning, data compression and human-robot commanding.
Automation and AI are transforming every industry now. How is it impacting industrials? Are companies adopting new technology fast enough?
Practically every industrial segment has an initiative to understand how robotics, automation and artificial intelligence will impact their respective business lines. Some are more aggressive in adopting than others, with industries like oil and gas being on the slower side. In general, it tends to be a tough proposition, because companies get successful and profitable because they get good in certain ways, and as a result get comfortable making money a certain way. In nearly every example I’ve seen to date in oil and gas, businesses would benefit from adopting and implementing robotics into their strategy, but unfortunately it involves tearing down the status quo and committing to change and looking at things from not “how we’ve always done it.” And sometimes companies, and particularly shareholders, are not that patient to wait on the returns or can stomach the capex to implement, even in the face of a solid business case to do so.
What specific industrial sectors are utilizing automation and AI the most? We all assume manufacturing, but what about others?
Manufacturing segments, which were the first industrials to adopt robotics (Unimate circa 1961), and continue to be strong in deploying this tech. The main inhibitor to strongly deploying robotics outside of traditional manufacturing segments is the ability for robotics to deal with unstructured environments. Nontraditional players are emerging like oil and gas (albeit slowly) that require robotics in these unstructured or semi-structured environments. In other words, places that look very different from the manufacturing floor. You are already seeing these advances in warehousing logistics and last mile, last yard delivery robotics.
Are the benefits of automation and AI real? Are they helping companies really expand margins and optimize operations?
Robotics and AI are a very real thing, and I’ll reclass that into ‘intelligent automation.’ The main issue as I see it is that often companies don’t want to make the necessary investment to fully realize all the benefits.
What are the key areas that an industrials company should consider automating?
There are four primary reasons industrial companies should consider automating a process. Are you interested in improving the quality of the product? The cost? Is the process involved potentially harmful to a human, or could the human presence during the process potentially corrupt the outcome? If you can answer yes to any of these, then you should consider running the full business case and consult with some robotics experts.
Some consider automation a threat to jobs. I actually see automation as a complement to operations and a way to optimize operations. What are your thoughts?
Since the luddites started smashing machines in the early 1800s, folks have been worried that advanced technology would displace the workforce. Historical data has shown that overwhelmingly, this is just not the case, and I tend to err on the side of Joseph Schumpeter’s model of creative destruction when debating these topics. In order to grow, sometimes you need to tear down the old ways. As a poignant example, look at how the ATM has influenced banking in the 1970s, arguably one of the largest unsung ‘machines displacing human job functions’ implementations. The traditional job of a banking teller was automated. And what happened? Once the teller was freed up to do more cognitive functions, the banking industry hired more tellers for more profitable functions. It is true that tellers per location decreased, but banks opened more branches overall due to lower overall operating costs. In fact, since 2000 the hiring of banking tellers has outpaced the labor workforce growth in general. The story of robots stealing worker’s jobs is a complicated one with several angles and must be looked at on the aggregate.
What are examples of emerging companies that are developing innovative technologies in your space? What solutions are they providing?
We work primarily within the oil and gas domain of the energy sector. There is no more important activity in that area than pulling hydrocarbons out of the ground, and doing that as safely and cheaply as possible – and that requires automation. Schlumberger has invested in us to bring NASA robotics to drilling activities. Other companies like Robotics Drilling System, recently acquired by Nabors and large corporations like NOV are racing to compete. In addition, companies are looking strong to automate offshore, especially subsea where business cases close much faster. We are designing and building the future of subsea robotics and ROVs/AUVs and are competing head to head with the engineering teams like Oceaneering or Subsea 7. And history has also shown to favor the more agile startups when disrupting an industry. There’s a reason GM didn’t start Tesla, Wal-Mart didn’t start Amazon, and Yellow Cab didn’t start Uber. It’s tough to disrupt yourselves.