Class of 2020: You Do Have Control Over Your Future

shutterstock_630936845_mediumOne of the things I do that I enjoy a great deal is serve as an advisor to students in the computer science, engineering, and entrepreneurship disciplines at my alma mater, Tufts University. It gives me a chance to give back to the place where I learned what it was I wanted to spend my life doing and to connect with those who are shaping the next generation of technology innovation.

Recently, I was part of the panel of judges for the Tufts $100K New Ventures Competition. Listening to these young entrepreneurs – so eager, bright, and full of optimism about how their idea would change the world – was certainly a highlight in this strange time we’re experiencing.

It occurred to me as I heard their pitches and read their presentations that they have a very tough road ahead…not at all due to anything they’ve done, or did not do. In fact, many students I advise and many more at colleges and universities all over the world have – for lack of a better way to put – have had the rug pulled out from underneath them. Not walking the stage in cap and gown while hearing their name called is hardly the worst of it.

Those who had internships lined up for the summer have lost those opportunities. Those who had jobs waiting that would launch their careers have learned that they won’t be needed.

The stress they feel is completely rational. The soundtrack in their head is loud and persistent: “My career is being impacted; I won’t be able to compete when job opportunities return because I won’t have a track record of getting the job done – because there are no jobs for me to do. I have no control over this situation and there is nothing I can do about it.”

I want to say to them: Be kind to yourself. Everything will be okay – if you take back the narrative. In my experience in the highly competitive high tech market, at startups and well-established companies, publicly traded and venture-backed, I can assure you that you can take control and you can do something.  That is what I – and any hiring manager worth their salt – will want to hear about when you sit down with me for an interview.

One of the lessons we are all learning during this time is that, while we didn’t choose this situation, we can choose how we respond to it and what we do while it is happening. Colloquially, you can’t control the cards you were dealt but you can control how you play the hand.

Your answer to the question, “How did you spend your time during the pandemic?” will likely be the most important thing a hiring manager is going to look at when we are on the other side of this.

For students like those I mentor at Tufts, who come to the table with computer science expertise there are myriad ways to turn this experience into a positive reflection on themselves. The key is to find a way to create value and to have an impact on the situation. It does not have to be “world-changing” or “earth-shattering” – it simply needs to be useful in this time.

Technology like Facebook and Zoom are transforming how people (many of whom never thought they’d use a computer to communicate) engage in daily life. For anyone with a background in computers, there is an unlimited appetite for showing people how it works, and more.

The bottom line is that you find a way to help. The help will be appreciated. And equally important, it is good for you and your future career. People who take control are happier, experience less mental stress, and are physically better.

Every manager knows that these are unusual times. We won’t expect something that wasn’t possible. But we will look to see what you did. This is where you can positively impact your own career.

 

Automation, Robots and the Future of Work

shutterstock_663951232 - 1000x527For all the history of humankind, the nature and shape of work has evolved, as curiosity and innovation have allowed us to develop tools and technologies that advance nearly all aspects of work and play. In the past, these changes took place over long periods – centuries even. Today though, we measure the pace of technology evolution in years or months. As machines are able to do more and more for us, we find ourselves wondering how the definition of work will evolve and what it means.

More Jobs, Not Less and the Challenges that Creates

The Keynesian vision for a 15-hour workweek may sound wonderful, but in truth, we are a long way from that level of freedom from the “rat race”. In fact, automation is more likely to increase the number of jobs, as a recent Manpower survey found that 87 percent of employers planned to increase or maintain their headcount because of automation.

While employers have plans to grow their labor pools, it may be easier said than done. Today, labor shortages are affecting nearly every industrialized nation; in 2018, consulting firm Deloitte predicted that a skills gap may leave an estimated 2.4 million positions unfilled in manufacturing through 2028 globally.

How then to resolve the conflict between the need for more workers in highly automated environments with a generation that doesn’t have the skills necessary or isn’t interested in working in manufacturing? For decades, manufacturing jobs were seen as good jobs – where wages and benefits supported a middle-class lifestyle. The good news is that automation and robots can play an important role in giving both companies and workers what they need to succeed.

Getting More Done, Together

Already robots are hard at work on the most tedious of tasks, freeing people from less repetitive and menial work. As robots become more and more a part of the labor pool, the opportunities for work well suited for humans grows – tapping creativity, critical thinking and innovation.

Upskilling and retraining will be important in this new model, and will increase the number of good jobs as 2018’s The Future of Jobs Report from the World Economic Forum reported: “… 133 million new jobs could be created by 2022 if workers receive the necessary training.” Large organizations recognize the need and are stepping up to provide that necessary training, for example, in July 2019, Amazon reported that it plans to spend $700M to retrain one-third of its workforce.

When people and robots work together, manufacturers get more: higher levels of employee retention, satisfaction, performance, throughput and quality.

Good for All

A 2019 study from Oxford Economics, “How Robots Change the World” found that increasing robot installations to 30% above the baseline forecast by 2030 would lead to an extra $4.9 trillion per year to the global economy by 2030. Even more compelling, the report predicts that “robotics dividend”—lower prices for manufactured goods, higher real incomes, and stronger tax revenues – will benefit a much wider population.

As we celebrate Labor Day here in the U.S., a holiday dedicated to the social and economic achievements of workers, it worth thinking about the ways in which the nature of work is evolving. I think there is a lot to look forward to and I’d love to hear your thoughts on what’s next for the workforce. Tweet me @jim_lawton

Fear is a Four-Letter Word

shutterstock_667160380 1000x666I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a leader in times of uncertainty. Probably because it feels like we’re living in a time of uncertainty about a lot of things – close to home and around the world. The constant drumbeat of “what will happen if…?” and the daunting realization that we simply don’t know – and scarier still – can’t do anything about it – is nerve-wracking in the least.

So what does all this mean for business leaders? After all, customers, employees, shareholders, and peers are looking to us to define where we go and how we get there. Too often, we look at all leaders as logical, rational players. In my experience, this is rarely the case. We are human beings, emotional creatures, at work as well as out of work, and our emotions and feelings drive our actions, at least as much as our thinking does.

Always present, but never more so than when we’re not sure what is going to happen, is the powerful emotion of fear.  We are all afraid of something. Afraid of dying. Afraid of being left behind. Afraid of not being able to have an impact on the world. Afraid of being fired. Afraid of losing a loved one. Afraid of being made to look bad. The list goes on, endlessly.

It is these fears that drive us. Why do we care? As leaders, we’re expected to take action – to do something, to do anything. When we’re under pressure – and surely, the state of uncertainty we’re living in today is a source of pressure – we’re likely to act out of fear.

For ourselves, understanding what we fear and what motivates us helps us understand our own drivers. It doesn’t mean we have to tell everyone what we fear. But we should at least be able to tell ourselves.

This mindfulness allows us to understand why we do what we do. When we understand the “why”, we immediately gain a narrative that supports the decision or allows us to change our decision if it isn’t grounded in something that makes sense.

It doesn’t stop with us, either. Taking the time to consider the fears of those we work with helps us connect, productively, to get good things accomplished. If someone is afraid, they are likely to operate in less rational ways.

I’ve met Patrick Sweeney through the Young Presidents Organization who has a completely enlightened view of fear. His mission is to help leaders find their fear and use it as fuel.  What I appreciate about his perspective is that he believes that we should not be afraid of fear – in fact, we should seek it out, embrace it and use it for good.

Ultimately, we choose the role that fear will play in our lives and in our leadership. What I know for certain is that when we understand how fear drives behaviors – our own and those around us – we gain insight into how to engage. Being aware helps us take better actions, in more productive ways.  It allows us to move from a sole focus of transactional leadership where we move from solving one problem to solving another, to one that allows us time and space to focus on the strategic decisions that will define our legacy as leaders.

What do you fear? How does that fear affect your leadership?

When Manufacturing Transformation Meets Resistance, There’s Usually a Good Reason

shutterstock_781767328 1000x666It’s an exciting time to be in the robots-for-manufacturing business. The industrial robot industry is expected to grow about 50% per year over the next several years. That’s a lot of cobots being deployed around the world. There are many reasons why the outlook is so positive, including: rising labor costs, labor shortages, greater flexibility, increased quality and the need to lower job-related repetitive stress injuries and the move to mass personalization – where consumers demand individualized products,

It’s all good and I don’t doubt the potential. In fact, I believe that collaborative automation is the key to transforming manufacturing in many meaningful ways: creating good jobs, strengthening customer loyalty and increasing shareholder value.

At the same time, I – like my manufacturing customers – am a pragmatist. When it comes to embracing change in manufacturing, don’t underestimate the power of motivation. And having been on this side for a while now, I can tell you, I see more motivation to keep things the way they are, in spite of the challenges that presents.

The Devil I Know, I Know How to Handle

For plant managers, there’s nothing more important than keeping manufacturing production up and running. When lines are humming, people are earning wages, raw material inventory is being used to build products, customer orders are being fulfilled – all is right with the world. When something happens to interrupt that flow, plant managers know what to do to get things back on track, quickly.

Introducing a new model is fraught with risk. And more than risk to uptime.

We’re talking about personal risk. The soundtrack might include questions like:

  • I’m being told that the cost will be low, but based on my experience with automation, could it be more?
  • How can I be certain this newly proven technology will meet the unique needs of my operation?
  • What if it breaks down too much?
  • Will I look silly to my peers and employees?
  • How can I get the results in the time frame I need to prove this was the right decision?
  • How will this look from a PR perspective?

These are valid questions, and they have to be addressed. The answers are available and based on more than a decade of proof of the value that cobots bring to manufacturing.

Transformation: Not Easy, but Necessary

Charles Craig may have captured perfectly the mandate we’re seeing shape almost all sectors of business today: “evolve or die.” The call for transformation is everywhere: retail, health care, education, and yes, manufacturing.

In manufacturing, plant managers are critical to making it happen for their organizations – all the strategic initiatives in the world are worthless if these folks dig in their heels to maintain the status quo. What they need is a way to lower the risk of embracing transformation, while gaining greater rewards.

Beyond the Hype, the Help is Real

The innovation that is collaborative robotics can silence the doubting voices and give plant managers a way to ensure that processes are optimized, production streamlined and talent maximized. It’s possible because cobots can

  • easily take on low-value tasks, generating additional capacity and freeing workers to focus on more strategic tasks
  • do highly repetitive work at lower costs, for longer periods of time, with fewer errors
  • work 24/7/365
  • be on the job in often less than a week, sometimes less than a day
  • do a wide range of tasks, including material handling and pick and place; machine tending; quality assurance inspection; and palletizing
  • deliver ROI in under 90 days

Motivation is a powerful force. Plant managers are motivated to keep production lines running and productivity high. Anything that puts those objectives at risk has to be viewed through the lens of skepticism, and rightly so. At the same, the world is moving toward more automation. Those who move with confidence to harness the power of advanced automation will find that there’s a lot of value, even with incremental steps. And once that first step is taken, the potential is quickly realized and the transformation begins.

What motivates you in your journey toward a more automated operation? Have you taken a step or are you waiting for something? What is it? Tweet me @jim_lawton.

The Recession Cometh and Robots are Ready

Up and Down Unstable Graph Financial Market Road Sign PostManufacturers are used to living between a rock and a hard place – and navigating the space between. Demand vs. supply. Consumer appetites for customized product and their expectations for ever-lowering costs. The list goes on and on. So the current tug-of-war over if, when and where a recession will hit is not unchartered territory. For manufacturers, though, the uncertainty is particularly challenging, as flexibility that allows operations to reflect the pace of the economy simply isn’t there.

Mixed Signals

The economy has been growing. Unemployment is down. Last year’s Christmas sales were better than they’ve been in a long time. All good and logical reasons for manufacturers to hire.

Recently though, there have been signs that instability is coming. The US stock market experienced extreme volatility as 2018 came to a close. The Federal Reserve raised interest rates and laid down some pretty clear language that more were to come. Consumer confidence fell. In the UK, a deal on Brexit that would allow British manufacturers to continue to do business with the EU seemed elusive at best. The Chinese government announced that that growth in its economy has slowed. And the “R” word started to appear with more frequency. These are not the signs that inspire confidence.

So, manufacturers once again find themselves in a place they know so well. The rock: the need to hire workers to keep ahead of demand. Compounding this challenge is that unemployment is low and it is very hard to find people with the skills needed to take a job in manufacturing and be ready to work on day one. The hard place: overwhelmingly, today’s automation is fixed, expensive and able to perform only a single task.

As one supply chain executive of a global automotive firm shared recently, “In a downturn…it is about flexibility. All of the automation we have costs too much and it is too complicated to change what it does. What we need is flexible automation that can respond when and how we need it to.”

The Labor Relief Valve that Manufacturers Need

So what makes the most sense? Hire, hoping that if and when recession comes, it will be short lived and you won’t have to lay folks off? Or try to invest in reconfiguring existing automation?

Ending this conundrum is in large part why collaborative robots are the answer for today’s reality. Cobots give manufacturers the flexibility they need to thrive in good times and not-so-good times. Advances in robotic technology make it possible to put cobots to work

  • at lower costs
  • on more than a single task
  • in the same amount of time it takes to train a person – or even less

With collaborative robots, manufacturers can build the operations they need to compete and thrive regardless of the economic climate, where people work on strategic tasks and flexibility is part of the organizational DNA.

Share your thoughts on the role flexibility plays – or could play – in your operations. How would more flexibility help your organization navigate a recession – whenever it comes? Tweet me @jim_lawton.

Originally published in Forbes.

Grieving the Death of a Company

Rethink Robotics team - 1000x667

Rethink’s Tom Miller, Brian Benoit, Mark Finegan, Pat McGrath, and Sawyer

Last month, Rethink Robotics shuttered its doors. The company that was founded in 2008 and at which I worked for five years was closed.

A pioneer in the new category of collaborative robots, Rethink changed the way companies think about factory automation. As the maker of robots with people-friendly names like Baxter and Sawyer, Rethink’s robots were extraordinarily easy to use, could be used safely side-by-side with people, and were able to economically perform tasks that hadn’t previously been automatable. And with advances in machine learning, collaborative robots were rapidly benefiting from the fusion of physical automation and cognitive automation.

Over just a few short years, I witnessed collaborative robots transition from an intellectual curiosity on behalf of manufacturers to a competitive necessity. I believe today as I did five years ago – collaborative robots will revolutionize the way businesses manufacture products and will change the very nature of work.

All of our best efforts at Rethink, however, did not prevent the final outcome. Various business and technical media captured the news, speculated on what went wrong, and prognosticated about the impact on the future of robots. History will judge Rethink’s achievements and failures. I will not dwell on them here. In the end, we just didn’t get it quite right.

When colleagues, friends, and family heard the news, I received inquiries from around the globe. “I just heard what happened. Are you okay?” In these moments, I too often gravitate to, “Thanks for asking,” “This isn’t what we had hoped for,” and “I’m fine.”

Others offered a more transcendent view, “You guys really changed the world.” I’m not sure we changed the world, but for sure, we did change the face of robotics. The ideas and inventions of the many talented men and women of Rethink Robotics will live on in robots of all shapes and sizes for many years to come. I’m happy to say that many of the people of Rethink have found new gigs and are passionately contributing to new ventures.

Team Rethink

Recently I had the opportunity to be back in the former Rethink offices. The walls had been painted for a new tenant. The artwork of local artists that had adorned the walls had been removed. The familiar sounds of robots at work were gone. The experience was surreal.

Standing with a couple of former Rethinkers in an open area we once used for all-company gatherings, I felt a profound sense of loss. Like a punch in the stomach when I wasn’t looking. In the final days of Rethink Robotics, I felt anger, disappointment, and ultimately acceptance. But in this moment, standing side-by-side with my peers in silence, we were grieving what we once had known. A home without a family is just a house. Rethink Robotics without our colleagues is just another office space.

Artwork at Rethink Robotics

Artwork at Rethink Robotics

Much has been written about the power of culture. I’ve written a few pieces on the topic myself over the years. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” Peter Drucker once said. He was right of course.

I have been privileged to work with amazing teams over the years. I have learned so much from so many wonderful people. But Rethink Robotics was truly a special place. With a strong sense of collaboration, people at Rethink were on a mission. Passionate about creating value for our customers, Rethinkers worked through the challenges every entrepreneurial start-up faces with relentless fervor. This living being which was so much more than any of the individuals was gone. I struggle to find the words.

I believe culture is everyone’s responsibility. And the team at Rethink took the responsibility seriously. But the real architect and steward of Rethink’s culture was its co-founder and vice president of people and culture, Ann Whittaker. More than anyone, Ann had a vision of the kind company that she wanted to build; a company that’s kind, where people are engaged in their work and encouraged by their teammates. I’ve heard a lot of definitions of corporate culture in my working career, but I like Ann’s best, “Culture is reflected in how your work and your colleagues make you feel.”

At Rethink, we felt like – together – we were changing the world.

One of my favorite quotations of Dr. Seuss is, “Don’t cry because it is over. Smile because it happened.” I am thankful and grateful to have been a part of Rethink Robotics. I have felt this way once before Rethink Robotics. I hope to feel this way again.

Life Moves On

As the saying goes, “Look for the good in each day. You’ll find it.” The day Rethink closed its doors I shared the news with my children. On the way home from school, my daughter, who gets a $14 allowance each week, asked me to turn off her allowance. Her only source of funds, her allowance she wanted to contribute to our family’s expenses. I found the good in this difficult day.

Industry 4.0: A Crucible Forging a New Breed of Leaders in Manufacturing

Worker pouring molten metal from flask in foundry workshop“It’s a great time for manufacturing.” “It’s a horrible time for manufacturing.” The analysis changes almost daily, and depends on the source. My bet, though, is that if you locked 100 manufacturing leaders in a room and told them they’d be there until they came to a consensus about which was a true assessment, you’d get 100 men and women banging on the door demanding to just go back to work. That’s just how manufacturing leaders are – they aren’t much for naval gazing or hand-wringing. They have a lot of real work to do and real-world challenges to wrestle. And what these leaders know right now is that they are in the middle of a transformative time, with a lot of unchartered territory ahead. Beyond that, not much is clear. No wonder that Industry 4.0 will do more than redefine manufacturing – it will redefine what successful leadership in manufacturing looks like.

The Uber-ization of Manufacturing?

Industry 5.0, the era of personalization, looms even as many manufacturers struggle to make the innovations of Industry 4.0 work for them. Navigating the disruptive nature of what the new models for operations require is going to take a lot and right now, there are a lot of theories about the “right” way to get it done. Folks like Elon Musk are quick to criticize the legacy of decades spent learning about what it takes to transform raw materials into finished goods and call for a radical transformation of manufacturing processes. But let’s face it, what Uber has done to the livery business or what Airbnb has done to hotels, is not going to happen in manufacturing on a real scale. Beyond a possible – and not really viable – solution to the labor problem, there’s no gig-economy model for manufacturing. It’s simply too complex. That’s not to say that some aspects of those innovations won’t have a place in the new world of manufacturing – they will. And I’m confident, based on my own experience with leaders in manufacturing, that the tried and true ways of introducing innovation through experimenting, measuring, tweaking and only then moving on to widespread implementation, will serve manufacturers well in figuring out just what works and what doesn’t.

The Power of “And”

Trade-offs. Either/or. How often do strategies come down to a choice between options? It’s easier that way – you can’t have all, so you have to choose. Changing that mindset has to happen, at least in some cases. And it is.

Manufacturers are embracing the “new” workforce models of collaborative robots and people, recognizing that in order to achieve operational excellence in the digital factory, they need both.

I think, as well, manufacturers know that much larger change cannot be achieved by making something that works today incrementally better. They have begun to evaluate investments in innovation based on the efficiencies that can be gained and on the contribution those innovations can make to meaningful differentiation and sustainable growth.

This isn’t an easy time to be leading a company. Successful leaders will be those who

  • inspire confidence in a position and listen to alternative perspectives
  • take risks to exploit innovation and hunker down to drive to operational excellence
  • boldly own a vision and allow others to be part of creating a vision

We see them every day in our business. These leaders love what they do, they love what manufacturing does for employees, customers, suppliers and the economy near and far. They know, as I said at the beginning, that they are living in a time that will be historic, and they are excited to be part of something larger than themselves and their companies. I’m sure you know them, too. Tell us about what you see as essential for leadership in the new manufacturing. Tweet me @jim_lawton.

Originally published on Forbes.

What Works: The Y, Fred Rogers and Lessons in Leadership

shutterstock_681472885 1000x667I’ve been going to the YMCA since I learned to swim there as a kid in Newport, Rhode Island.

Now I go to a YMCA near my home in the Boston area. Normally, I go late at night – a habit I got into when my children were little and I worked out after they went to sleep. Today, it’s just a habit. Most of the people I see at night are high schoolers or college-age kids. A pick-up game of basketball and pounding free weights are the main attractions.

Today, I went in the mid-afternoon. The vibe was completely different. Babies napped on yoga mats in the nursery. The after-work crowd had not yet arrived. It was almost peaceful. I moved freely between the free weights and machines. I wasn’t long into my routine when I noticed, next to me, a lady, probably in her mid-to-late seventies. She was a bit frail, but holding her own on the leg press machine. Working with her was a guy probably in his twenties, a YMCA personal trainer named Kevin. Kevin was teaching her how to work each of the machines, moving progressively from legs to chest to shoulders.

For each exercise, Kevin would walk over and wipe off the machine. He’d explain what the machine did, which muscle group it worked, and how to perform the exercise safely and with proper form. She was quiet and spoke in a low voice. I’d catch her saying something funny; he’d laugh.

Between sets, I watched the interaction between these two people. As she exited one of the machines, I could see the lady’s hand trembling. She wasn’t always steady on her feet, but moved eagerly and purposefully from machine to machine. Each time, Kevin would help her get seated into the machine. Hold her arm. Gently lift her first leg and then second leg into position. He didn’t talk down to her, or ask if she felt strong enough to continue – he was confident that she could do it and simply gave her what she needed to do it. He’d give her a few instructions and off she’d go.

Kevin and his client were together for the better part of an hour. As I was wrapping up my workout, I was somewhat surprised to hear Kevin talking about a movie he recently saw about the life of Fred Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Kevin seemed too young to have grown up watching the show, and yet, he clearly knew the story – and that Mr. Rogers was the very embodiment of kindness and compassion, and he led with those characteristics. In fact, these traits were what made Kevin a perfect leader for this woman.

Kevin’s partnership with his client was a living example of leader-as-coach. Kevin had knowledge that she didn’t and was helping her learn. More importantly, what I saw first-hand was the role that kindness and compassion play in leading. Kevin was helping her learn a new skill, sure. But the way he was engaging her – kindly, compassionately and patiently – was bringing her to a better place. In some ways, as leaders is that not what we are all trying to do, bring our organization to a better place?

We hear a lot of talk about leaders as decisive, assertive, charismatic. “He went in and negotiated a hell of a good deal.” “She took charge and made things happen.” What we hear a lot less about are the importance of empathy for the people a leader is serving, the role of kindness, a person who gives some of him/herself to help their colleagues learn, grow and engage in success.

We live in challenging times. As leaders, we need to deliver results. Certainly, they are as important now as ever. But I think we must aspire to more. I like to picture a world where leaders embody the traits of kindness, compassion, and empathy, as much as they do decisiveness, assertiveness and charisma. For me, I don’t see ‘either-or’, I see ‘and.’ Personifying both allows us to build better organizations and better people…and that is a model for sustainable success.

AI and Robots: Not What You Think

AI and robots

There’s a lot of excitement about what artificial intelligence (AI) can do in manufacturing. Depending on what you read – and choose to believe about what you read – AI-driven robots are able to autonomously make decisions about what work gets done, how it gets done and who does it or there are decades of work yet to be done before we see a material impact.

Personally, I think we’re somewhere in the middle, as manufacturers – pragmatists that they are – design and implement manufacturing strategies in a very deliberate way to achieve business requirements and then focus ongoing efforts to make key processes better and better. And I think that collaborative robots (cobots) will play a larger and larger role in accelerating progress. The AI that cobots possess makes them so much more than just machines for dirty, dull and dangerous work.

So let the world watch and wait for artificial intelligence that will enable wholesale change in how we drive, care for our aged, teach our children and more. Manufacturers don’t have to wait for artificial intelligence-driven robots to help them make their operations better. It can – and is – happening right now.

Improve, Improve, Improve

In manufacturing, continuous process improvement is part of an operation’s DNA. Whatever is being done well today, can be done better tomorrow. In these environments, AI-driven robots can make meaningful contributions to process improvement from the day they are deployed.

I’ve written a lot about how cobots are much easier to use than traditional automation solutions based on the simple fact that they are safe enough to work in close proximity to people and don’t require hours of integration and custom programming in order to work on a task.

There are practical applications of intelligence that make this possible, including these:

Monitor: This ability makes it possible for an AI-driven cobot to, for example, detect changing workspace conditions and to monitor and optimize its operation.

See: With this ability, an AI-driven cobot can recognize the presence and orientation of parts; perform inspection and dynamic pick and place tasks as well as read results from testing equipment and make decisions accordingly.

Adapt: Using this trait, an AI-driven cobot can adjust task orientation as machines move; adjust the force control required to pick parts from a stack; detect and evade collisions and respond to errors with retry strategies.

Learn: An AI-driven cobot that can predict and diagnose failure conditions; identify patterns in ongoing operations and apply insights gained to drive better performance.

Deploy: An AI-driven cobot can be put to work in hours; it is also able to re-use task information and share it with other robots.

Extend: AI-driven robot can control other machines; orchestrate the activities and improvements in nearby equipment.

What matters most to manufacturers is how these translate into operational improvements. That’s easy. With onboard intelligence, cobots can

  • realize when something is not working and will stop before damage is done
  • identify ways to improve the way a task is done
  • collect data and perform analytics to help users make decisions around process improvement

What AI-driven cobots deliver to manufacturers today are bottoms-up applications of machine learning that make operations run more smoothly, efficiently and productively. In many ways, these cobots can be seen as assistants that help manufacturers do their jobs better. And who isn’t looking for that? Share your thoughts on how AI-driven cobots can make your job better. Tweet me @jim_lawton.

Originally published on Forbes.

Living In Irony

shutterstock_345282707It recently dawned on me, that from an outsider’s perspective, my professional life might seem like a contradiction at the worst, ironic at the least.

That’s because while I work for a robotics company, my personal belief is that to be human is to work. And I love to work.

Unless you’ve been living off the grid for the past 24 months, you know the narrative. Robots will take ALL the jobs away. Or at least the majority of them. That mantra has spun off dozens of wild and not-so-wild ideas – from the need to tax robots’ “wages” and the call for introducing guaranteed basic income to fear that robots will take away more than work – they will take away what it means to be human.

Well, I can tell you with a pretty high degree of confidence, that it’s not quite that simple. There are so very many things that we do that cannot be replicated by or programmed into a robot.

More than the technical challenges related to making a machine into a person, though, I believe that work is essential to being human. Having a purpose is possibly the most important driver to get up every day. Building something. Solving a problem. Making right something that is wrong. The list goes on and on.

I’ve worked in large, multi-national corporations with hundreds of people on my team and at start-ups with just a few dozen. The job descriptions, roles and responsibilities varied, of course. The reasons, rewards and measures of success were different, too. What remained – and still remains – is that regardless of what I was doing the work gave me a chance to lead, learn, grow, influence and contribute to something larger than myself. Why would I ever give that up?