Robotics, Broadband and America’s Future Manufacturing Renaissance

SPRINGFIELD, Illinois, February 4, 2013 – A few weekends ago, I spent some time with about 80 robots and their 800 masters, the elementary and middle-school students who participate in state-wide FIRST Lego League competition. It was exhilarating to see these bots move, as they circulated for two-an

SPRINGFIELD, Illinois, February 4, 2013 – A few weekends ago, I spent some time with about 80 robots and their 800 masters, the elementary and middle-school students who participate in state-wide FIRST Lego League competition. It was exhilarating to see these bots move, as they circulated for two-and-a-half minutes in a series of challenge matches.

The robots were in pursuit of the maximum number of points they can receive on an eight-by-four-foot challenge board. This year, their tasks simulated the theme of “Senior Solutions,” or the way that robots might assist Senior Citizens in daily life challenges.

FIRST, which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, is a New Hampshire non-profit organization that encourages science and technology education. FIRST Lego League is conducted in collaboration with the LEGO group (think “hardware”) and its Mindstorm NXT robot (think “software”). After middle-school, kids can go on to participate in the FIRST Tech Challenge and the FIRST Robotics Competition.

The FIRST Lego League competition brought home to me personally something that I see happening in our economy and tech-driven society: broadband-driving robotics providing new opportunities for the United States to extend re-extend its competitive advantages back into manufacturing.

Makers: Why Atoms are the New Bits

With the FIRST LEGO League competition in mind, I attended the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month interested to see consumer products in the robotics realm. There were window-washing robots and flying drones with Wi-Fi powered high-definition cameras.

Their time is yet to come. But what is here-and-now is the three-dimensional printer. It allows you to quickly duplicate a plastic model or a prototype a machine part. Its impact was driven home in a speech on the CES floor by Christ Anderson, the former editor of Wired, and author of Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, and co-founder of the company 3D Robotics.

Anderson’s tale began with his grandfather Fred Hauser, a Swiss immigrant in Hollywood who invented the automatic sprinkler system. Between inventing, patented and licensing his creation – the Rainmaster — to a manufacturer called Moody, somewhere in this process Hauser “lost contact — and lost control — of his invention,” said Anderson.

Flash forward to the internet and desktop printing, said Anderson. The desktop printer liberated the publishing industry from the lumbering and expensive printing press. Now, a journalist could produce a newsletter or a magazine with a personal computer, some software, and use the “print” command in the computer’s file menu. As desktop printers democratized the tools of creation, internet blogs have democratized the tools of distribution, said Anderson.

Now, when you attach a 3D printer to a computer, you get an amazing new command on the file menu: “Make.” Or as Anderson said, “We are getting to the point where manufacturing is a button in your browser. The past decade was about finding new social and innovation models on the web; the next decade will be about applying them to the real world.”

Networking These New Tools of Creation

This is the point where broadband comes into the picture. With 3D printers and copious high-capacity internet connections, the web’s glory days are no longer limited to digital goods.

Twelve years ago, Apple’s iPod slogan “Rip, Mix, Burn” popularized taking song onto computers, mixing them with others, and burning them to a compact disc or another portable device. A new motto is in order, said Anderson: “Rip, Mod, Make.” It means “ripping” 3D images or “photocoping reality.” The images can be tweaked in Computer automated software, “modifying” them to suit the new purpose. Finally, you can “make” them. And what else is “making” if not manufacturing?

There are really two themes here: the internet has made it a lot easier to make things; and as long as we have good broadband, we’ll be able to make them here in the United States better and more cost effectively than anywhere else.

In a January 13 feature on 60 Minutes, the news show discussed the role of robots in automating more and more features of daily life. Think of kiosks, bank teller, sales clerk (check yourself out of the grocery story), switchboard operators and call center attendants being replaced by voice-automated systems. The last decade has seen repetitive service jobs go to “robots,” as many shop-floor positions previously vanished. The show featured a fascinating logistics company in Massachusetts that built its mail-order fulfillment center around Kiva’s small orange robots that criss-cross the warehouse.

But if there is good news for U.S. employment figures, it’s that robots have already taken American – now they are about to beginning substituting for Chinese and Indian jobs. Or in other words, robots make it just as cheap to run a manufacturing business in U.S. as it is to do so overseas.

America’s Competitive Advantage: Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Ultimately, this is what broadband and robotics can do for America: allow us to tap into our greatest strength: the entrepreneurship and innovation that is encouraged by our culture and our values.

It means that machine-in-machine communications are coming more rapidly than many expect. These include everything from the Kiva robots using Wi-Fi to the Delphi Automative plug in that uses Verizon Communication’s 4G network to share your car’s vital stats with your preferred local mechanic.

Machine-to-machine communications, as Chris Anderson’s analogy to the 3D printer suggest, won’t be just a business-to-business endeavor. Rather, consumers and the many “robots” within their homes will be communicating with each other, and over wired and wireless network, to perform countless internet tasks far removed from a person’s checking a web browser on a personal computer. These multiple devices are going to require higher and higher bandwidth within individual homes. If America’s residential broadband doesn’t keep pace with business-level broadband, the promise of this new industrial revolution in manufacturing will be cut short.

At CES, I asked Anderson why the United States was losing its reputation for cutting-edge manufacturing. His first point was that, to date, automation has been about arbitraging the lowest labor costs. That’s one reason so much manufacturing has gone overseas. But with robots, “speed, creativity and closeness to market are the U.S.’s advantage,” he said.

There’s another, more powerful point, and it goes to the heart of what I saw on display at the FIRST LEGO League competition near Schaumburg, Illinois. Even today, most of the stuff that is made is made for mass production. That no longer needs to be the case, said Anderson. “There is a place for the mass; and a place for the niche. The web is scale-agnostic. Once manufacturing is scale-agnostic,” it will be easier and easier for creative entrepreneurs to invent, to prototype, and to actually produce their own products for their own market.

If he did it again today, it would be the Fred Hauser Rainmaster instead of the Moody Rainmaster. Or the thousands – even millions – of new products that LEGO Leaguers will be designing, prototyping and making on their own.

Follow Broadband Breakfast’s coverage of the broadband economy at Drew Clark is the Chairman of the Broadband Breakfast Club, the premier Washington forum advancing the conversation around broadband technology and internet policy. You can find him on Google+ and Twitter. He founded, and he brings experts and practitioners together to advance Better Broadband, Better Lives. He’s doing that now as Executive Director for Broadband Illinois, based in Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield.

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