The Next Big Thing
Posts about next generation technologies and their effect on business.

FIRST Robotics Competition game for 2015 announced

Saturday was the kickoff for the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) for 2015. I’ve participated for the last 7 years, locating judges for the North Texas competition. This year, the Dallas FRC event will take place on February 25th – 28th at the Irving convention center. If you’re in town – be there. It’s a free and an exciting show.

 

FRC allows students to start from a standard kit of parts and some state of the art tools, received at the kickoff, and build a robot that attempts to meet specified objectives. At the end of the build period, the robots are packed up and the students do not see them again until the competition.

 

This video is an overview of this year’s challenge – Recycle Rush

 

 

I’ve found FRC to be an exciting and enlightening experience for the students and the volunteers. Every year I am surprised at the ingenuity and commitment demonstrated by those participating.

 

The main competition is judged by numerous factors beyond how the robots perform on the field, like:

  • Coopertition (helping others that you are competing against)
  • Project planning
  • Quality/safety
  • Technical achievement
  • Business plan and marketing

 

The on field performance is not judged, since it has its own rules… Referees determine the winners of that portion of the competition.

 

The goal of FIRST is to encourage the understanding and passion around STEM. It has a proven track record of results that is hard to argue with.

 

You can see some video from previous year’s Dallas FIRST competition, if you are interested.

Automation prioritization

 

Since I have been putting out some posts on automation, I’ve been getting some feedback from coworkers. One was a post titled: 8 Questions to Ask before You Automate. It holds some useful perspectives to evalutate if automation is even applicable to a situation.

 

Back in the early 90s, I led a project called Knowledge-based Tool Design focused on improving the productivity of tooling designers for automotive manufacturing. We used the capabilities of CAD tools to try and automate as much as we could, related to the creation of the machines that facilitate car assembly. This was a high value effort, since late stage engineering changes in the car parts themselves have implications on the tooling and can delay the startup of manufacturing. Anything we could do to address the reengineering of tooling had a direct effect on time-to-market.

 

We would load the car component models that need to be clamped and welded into the CAD system and try to create automated techniques to define and design the tooling needed. After firing rays all over the place to determine entry routes for robotic arms holding the clamping and welding tools, it became clear that people can look at parts and tooling and determine routes for entry very easily compared to doing this programmatically. Creating these designs well definitely involved creativity and intuition.

 

What people could not do reliably was define the underlying Bill-of-Materials need to create that robotic assembly, physically. So yes, I learned back then that it is very useful to understand what people and/or computers are good at, when defining the right approach to address repeatable, higher-value, computationally capable tasks with automation first.

 

Whether it is designing tools, answering calls or writing software – even though the automation capabilities are radically improving, this assessment is still required. I usually think of it as a 3 dimensional matrix and the further away from the origin, the more likely the automation effort will be effective.

 

 automation axis.png

Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should do something, especially when there is a constraint on the effort available to tackle a set of tasks. We need to prioritize.

 

 

What is automation?

IT automation.pngLately I’ve been talking with teams about ‘automation’. I am beginning to think that automation activities are a lot like innovation for two reasons:

  1. The definition is very dependent on the role of the individual
  2. It can be identified by: I’ll know it when I see it

My definition is:

Anytime a computer/system can do something where a person adds little to no value

 

It’s not just robotics or cognitive computing, it can be as simple as automatically updating information between systems (e.g., master data management) -- so people don’t need to swivel between systems to perform updates.

 

IT related automation can range across a variety of areas:

  • Plan
  • Define
  • Build
  • Run

The role of people and their expertise is critical and one of the things we need to determine is where their attention would be better served and how automation can enable us to maximize the value from it. Each of these areas has a range of tools that are related to incremental or disruptive improvement.

 

The computational capabilities are there to facilitate significantly greater automation, we just need to understand our options. Strategically the options and impact are going to be immense. Cloud computing is essentially enabled by the automation of infrastructure deployment and management. We now need to take it deeper into the Application Portfolio and the business processes themselves.

 

Will there be a new dimension to UI design based on cognitive computing?

things.jpgI recently read a report on How Humans Respond to Robots that focused on the social side of robotics. Near the end of the article it started to talk about autonomous cars, autopilots and other devices that are really robots but we don’t normally think of them that way (e.g., smart thermostats) because of their minimal user interface.

 

In a world where we’ll soon have wearable technologies all around us, likely building to a $50 billion market by 2017, pumping out data to feed the autonomous response of cognitive computing, it does make me wonder how enterprise architectures and application portfolios will drive us into the uncanny valley for business automation.

 

As we automate things and find patterns, the automated response could be a bit eerie and unsettling. Likely a new dimension for User Interface Designers of the future will look beyond just the traditional capabilities and more deeply into user intent and the sense of user interactions – so we can accept the assistance as intended.

Is it time for a Chief Automation Officer?

Automation officer.pngOver the last few years, there has been quite a bit of discussion about the race against the machines (or the race with the machines), based on the abundance of computing available. When I think about the IoT and its implications on business, it may be that information is just a side effect of an entirely different corporate strategic effort.

 

Maybe there is a need for a Chief Automation Officer more than a Chief Information Officer going forward?!? Someone who looks at the business implications and opportunities for cognitive computing, sensing, robotics and other automation techniques.

 

Or is automation just assumed to be part of all future strategic planning activities. As I began thinking about it, it’s clear that others have thought about this CAO role as well, although mostly from an IT perspective instead of one based on business need. It could be viewed that this is a role for the CTO or even the enterprise architect.

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About the Author(s)
  • Steve Simske is an HP Fellow and Director in the Printing and Content Delivery Lab in Hewlett-Packard Labs, and is the Director and Chief Technologist for the HP Labs Security Printing and Imaging program.
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