Robots – in a workplace near you.

Here at the WorkSmith we’re excited by advances in manufacturing, advances in personal transportation and breakthroughs in automation.

Factory Automation

In this first of several posts on automation and robotics, we’re going to focus on aspects of Elon Musk’s recent release of his “Master Plan (Part Deux)” In releasing his manufacturing plans for the coming years- Musk makes clear that he intends to combine several of his business interests and technologies into a vertically integrated  ecosystem. In short- he is creating a company which will power one’s home, one’s car- and manage that power- locally or remotely. Even the materials and processes (types of strong welds and so forth) used in his rocket company (Space X) are re-used in his other endeavors

This passage from his plan is telling:

What really matters to accelerate a sustainable future is being able to scale up production volume as quickly as possible. That is why Tesla engineering has transitioned to focus heavily on designing the machine that makes the machine — turning the factory itself into a product. A first principles physics analysis of automotive production suggests that somewhere between a 5 to 10 fold improvement is achievable by version 3 on a roughly 2 year iteration cycle. The first Model 3 factory machine should be thought of as version 0.5, with version 1.0 probably in 2018.

“Designing the machine that makes the machine.”

Let’s examine  that statement a bit. In Fremont, California, he’s already built  one of the world’s most advanced assembly lines- and, to complement that effort- has built a battery manufacturing facility in Nevada (second largest building by volume). Musk plans to combine these efforts with those of Tesla’s Sister company, Solar City, whose automated solar cell manufacturing site in New York may be up and running late in 2017.

Musk has said his battery factory – “The Gigafactory” –  is being designed “like you’d design an advanced computer”—all of the pieces of the factory will be optimized to be as efficient (and automated) as possible.

The 20th Century’s first steps toward industrial automation were simply workers  helped by robots which would do the  mundane and the dangerous.

Light Factory Automation-Cobots

Collabortive Robot Baxter

Rethink Robotics’ Baxter Collaborative Robot

Automated collaborative tools such as Rethink Robotic’s Baxter and Sawyer represent great examples of where this technology is heading for industrial and commercial use. Baxter can be “trained” by physically moving its limbs correctly to do a series of tasks. Both robots feature kind and friendly “faces” represented by simply eyes and eyebrow movements displayed on a flat panel screen. Rethink Robots has coined a term for autonomous collaborative companions– for that firm, they are simply referred to as  “Cobots”.

Sawyer - A one armed assembly robot

Sawyer- A Companion “Cobot” similar to Baxter

Automating Logistics

Transportation and Last Mile Delivery

We may soon have an automated delivery truck that can drive to your home- but it won’t can’t carry packages to your door, greet you, or judge whether it is safe and appropriate to leave such a package. Additionally, such a service most certainly can’t navigate a complex apartment or office building.

However- and now we’re getting to the heart of things- The next decade will be remembered as the beginning of the robot “companion”. From the perspective of the human, a robot companion may drive the truck so that the human can sort or process  deliveries. From the perspective of the automated truck, the human companion is handling the baggage so the robotic vehicle is free to concentrate on driving safely and efficiently.


Drones take flight

Drones take flight

Loading Vision Concept

Loading Vision Concept


Wheeled robots descend from van


Automated Fulfillment Centers

A Most Humble beginning- Amazon Fulfillment.

It’s not sexy, but to demonstrate just how far robotics has come- one need only look at Amazon’s advanced fulfilment center. In the video below- a set of processes has been created so that humans and robots work in tandem to complete a customer shipment. The robots are from a firm called Kiva. Instead of massive robots Kiva’s approach is one of numbers. A fleet of small nimble robots moving shelves TO the human for final processing. No more climbing up and down stairs- no more long walks down lonely storage isles .

Technology review recently featured a competing technology- one a robot that not only delivers, but picks the correct set of items – and automatically places the complete order in the shipping area.

Toru picks books from shelves and brings them to the shipping station for a German book distributor:

As an example of yet more behind the scenes logistics automation, The Hudson’s Bay Company said it plans to open a 450,000-square-foot all-channel robotic fulfillment center in Pottsville, Pa.

Inventory robot

Tally, the Inventory robot

Outside the warehouse (and closer to home) a robot from Simbe, Inc is designed to operate at the front lines- retail stores- checking stock levels, ensuring correct pricing, alerting on misplaced items, etc.

For more on how quickly collaborative robots are moving from factory to storefront, check out MIT’s Technology Review

In the next post in the series, we will be featuring robots in the travel industry, companion technology in health care, and automated transit: We know by now that Uber is testing robotic cars in Pittsburgh- but it’s about time you saw its plans for  passenger carrying robot helicopter.

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