Ask an Expert: John Wen, Head of Industrial & Systems Engineering, RPI

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For this edition of our “Ask an Expert” series, we interviewed Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Dr. John Wen, who plays a leadership role in the new Advanced Robotics Manufacturing (ARM) Institute. The ARM Institute is a federally-supported innovation institute in the Manufacturing USA network, established to help revitalize American manufacturing and incentivize companies to co-invest in new technology development in the United States. FuzeHub co-leads the institute’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Robotics Innovation Collaborative alongside RPI, with a focus on New York State manufacturers. 

Dr. Wen is the Head of Industrial and Systems Engineering and a Professor in the Department of Electrical, Computer, and Systems Engineering with a joint appointment in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Dr. Wen’s research interest lies in the modeling and control of dynamical systems with applications to precision motion, robot manipulation, thermal management, lighting systems and materials processing.

Many New York State manufacturers already use different kinds of automation. What’s different about the next generation of robotics, and how will it transform small manufacturing shops?

New York State manufacturers are already using industrial robots in a wide range of applications, such as pick-and-place of heavy loads, transporting of fragile wafers, vision-based inspection, and parts assembly. Industrial robots offer precision, speed, and repeatability, and are available from multiple robot vendors. However, industrial robots today also have major limitations. They mostly operate in a teach-and-repeat mode, which requires time-consuming programming using a teach pendant. This makes re-purposing robots for different tasks challenging. Robot motion is mostly based on joint measurements, and does not respond intelligently to information from other sensors such as vision, proximity, force, tactile, and sound. As a result, industrial robots do not interact well with human workers. In fact, in most cases, humans are excluded from the robot workspace.

Next-generation industrial robots will aim to overcome these limitations. They will be more easily programmable through more intuitive and natural user interfaces and integrated with CAD models.  They will be equipped with sensors and programmed to use the sensor measurements to map and navigate in a cluttered environment, to guide the robot operation with vision and force, or to ensure safety by avoiding collisions with humans and objects.  With these interfaces and sensors, these robots will be able to operate in the same workspace with humans, and even collaborate with human workers in coordinated tasks, such as handling of large or non-rigid loads, offering parts and tools to workers, providing extra sensing (for better views) and actuation (for stabilization).

What this means is that robots will be more easily and quickly re-purposed for different tasks, and can operate with human co-workers in an assistive and collaborative manner. This would be particularly important for small manufacturers, with smaller lot sizes and high product mix. More intelligent robots will also mean that small companies that don’t have a large engineering staff will be able to use and program them easily.

This type of collaborative robotics technology has already started to penetrate small manufacturers (a recent New York Times article describes how a small manufacturer uses three robots to help quadruple productivity in an injection molding line).  Productivity improvement is a clear incentive, but just as important is the ease of programming—you simply drag the robot wrist to desired poses and record intermediate points. Such use of collaborative robots is only the tip of the iceberg. There is a lot of room for improvement and new applications based on sensor feedback and human interaction. The aim of ARM is to speed up adoption of and transition to the practice of the latest collaborative robotics technologies.

What is the purpose of the new ARM Institute, and how can small manufacturers take advantage of it?

The Department of Defense has announced a major award to the Advanced Robotics Manufacturing (ARM) Institute as part of the Manufacturing USA program. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and FuzeHub are co-leading the New York State participation in this important national effort. This public-private partnership will offer significant opportunities for New York State manufacturers, particularly small manufacturers.  Through this “ARM-NY” effort, these manufacturers can obtain local help while leveraging the national network. Available resources would include technology and solution databases, project funding, teaming opportunities, access to facilities (particularly for prototyping), and training/workforce development offerings.

The first step to get involved is to contact me by email or phone (518-276-6156) to discuss needs and challenges and how ARM-NY and ARM operate.  To find out more about the ARM Institute, please check out http://arminstitute.org.

How do you foresee Rensselaer and FuzeHub working together under the ARM Institute framework?

New York State already has an extensive manufacturing assistance network, led by Empire State Development’s (ESD) Division of Science, Technology and Innovation (NYSTAR). FuzeHub and RPI’s Center for Automation Technologies and Systems (CATS) are part of the NYSTAR family, which also includes the Manufacturing Extension Partnership centers, Centers for Advanced Technology (CATs), and Centers of Excellence (COEs).  ARM-NY will coordinate, leverage, and augment existing manufacturing ecosystems to assist manufacturers on issues related to industrial robots.  FuzeHub will coordinate statewide outreach and resources. RPI will coordinate partner universities to provide technical expertise, and serve as a conduit for new technologies.

Education and workforce development (EWD) is an important part of the ARM mission, to help prepare the workforce for the manufacturing floors of tomorrow. ARM-NY will engage K-12 robotics activities, such as FIRST Lego League and FIRST Robotics, community colleges and universities throughout the state for technical education and training, as well as engage with the maker movement, and connect these to the national network for a comprehensive EWD offering.

Could you share an example of a company that used Rensselaer’s automation expertise to successfully develop a new or improved product?

RPI’s Center for Automation Technologies and Systems (CATS) has been assisting companies in New York and beyond since 1989. We work with companies of all sizes through a variety of mechanisms. For companies just starting up, we can share space, equipment, and technical know-hows for early-stage development (e.g., BullEx, Vistex, Paper Battery).  For small manufacturers, we frequently serve as the engineering arm, working closely with these companies to build proof-of-concept models to evaluate options and assess risks before proceeding with product-ization (e.g., MPI, Kintz Plastics, BASF Fuel Cell, PMD). For medium-to-large size companies, we can supplement the company’s own automation team to focus on a particularly challenging aspect of the production process (e.g., Bausch & Lomb, Welch Allyn).

To support new products or processes, we help with R&D proposal development, particularly with small companies, to secure external funding (Vistex, Simmetrix). For large funding opportunities, e.g., from DARPA or DOE, we form R&D teams to respond to the solicitation (e.g., Northrop Grumman, GE, STEPTools).

Contact John Wen about the ARM Institute via email or phone (518-276-6156).

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