Carnegie Mellon University Nonprofit Pitches Robotics to Business Leaders

During the ARM Institute's first membership recruitment meeting, members hammered out agreements with corporations and development agencies alike to gain private funding and strengthen the manufacturing workforce.

by Daniel Moore, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette / April 13, 2017 0

(TNS) -- At the National Robotics Engineering Center in Lawrenceville, two decades of robotics research is on display in the 28 gleaming plaques on the wall: inscribed patents for pieces of technology invented at Carnegie Mellon University.

Now, flush with government money and commitments from private industry, a nonprofit founded at the school is embarking on a new mission: selling the value of robotics and automation to American manufacturing.

The Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute, called the ARM Institute, hosted more than 200 people from across the country on Wednesday at the cavernous research center for the ambitious undertaking’s first membership recruitment meeting.

Over two-day discussions, the attendees — large corporations like Airbus and Wal-Mart, schools like Texas A&M University, workforce development agencies like Catalyst Connection — will begin to hammer out agreements that the institute hopes will lead to at least $173 million in private funding.

That money is in addition to $80 million secured in January from the U.S. Department of Defense, a grant that got the nonprofit off the ground.

The staggering scale of the institute is appropriate for the challenge: how to use robotics to make American manufacturing more competitive with other countries while continuing to grow good-paying jobs. Wednesday’s opening session — the first public event since the grant was announced in January — gave prospective members an overview of how the massive group could benefit them.

“Our mission, at a very high level, is establishing leadership in this area,” said Gary Fedder, interim CEO of the ARM Institute. “We want to lower the barrier for the companies to adopt this technology” while also “empowering the American worker” to find open positions.

Mr. Fedder said the automotive industry, which has experienced a steady rise in robotic control of production lines, has seen its workforce grow to more than 900,000 people, up from 650,000 about a decade ago. (But employment levels still sit below the 1.3 million auto workers employed in the early 2000s, according to government statistics.)

“Don’t let people tell you we're losing jobs in manufacturing,” Mr. Fedder said. “We'd certainly like to see that slope increase, and that’s what this institute is trying to do.”

The private commitments of $173 million were estimated from 231 letters of support that the institute received when applying for federal funding. Mr. Fedder said 84 large companies have signed on, along with 35 to 40 smaller businesses and startups; 35 universities; 10 community colleges; and “a host” of nonprofits.

In terms of money, universities and community colleges have spent $88 million to the companies’ $41 million, according to numbers showed by Mr. Fedder.

“This is a competition, now,” he said, a bit tongue-in-cheek. “The companies really have to stand up.”

Jay Douglass, chief operating officer, shared the membership tiers for industry and nonprofit. A top-level “platinum” member agrees to pay $100,000 in cash and $250,000 in contributions of goods or services each year. Those amounts lessen with gold, silver and bronze memberships, the latter of which requires $5,000 in cash and $10,000 in contributions.

On the education and nonprofit side, the top membership level requires $15,000 in cash and $200,000 in contributions.

In exchange, members get exclusive access to all the perks of pooling together research, Mr. Douglass said. This includes the opportunity to pitch projects that could benefit industry as a whole; workforce development initiatives drawn up at the institute; and intellectual property rights for products developed at shared facilities affiliated with the institute.

The institute has received nearly two dozen platinum commitments, including Airbus Americas, the Virginia-based commercial aircraft company.

John O’Leary, vice president of engineering, said he hopes the institute can quicken the pace of manufacturing as Airbus faces an eight-year backlog of aircraft production the company is trying to speed through.

“Our supply chain is running completely flat out,” Mr. O’Leary said. “We are actively looking for ways to automate the value chain process, and robotics is part of that. ... I don’t think the company sees robotics as an ‘if.’”

One interested start-up company is RE2 Robotics, a developer of robotic arms for mobile ground and underwater robots. Since it spun out from Carnegie Mellon University in 2001, its primary customer has been the Defense Department, said founder Jorgen Pedersen.

“How might we be able to adapt this technology to solve manufacturing needs? That’s why I’m here,” Mr. Pedersen said.

On the flip side, advances in manufacturing could help reduce his own costs with making the robots, he said. “It’s an awesome, self-licking ice cream cone,” he said.

Mayor Bill Peduto spoke at the outset of the meeting, stressing the human element of robotics development.

“Today we stand at the next step, bringing manufacturing and technology research together to change the world,” Mr. Peduto said that while companies are aiming to “automate all aspects of our life,” they have a “moral obligation” to respect the rights of workers who stand to be displaced.

Mr. Peduto has become more critical of ride-hailing company Uber’s treatment of workers and relationship with the city. Speaking with reporters separately, Mr. Peduto reiterated his call for Uber to sign a memorandum of understanding with the city to, among other things, classify its drivers as employees.

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