Minnesota could become a center of robotics excellence across many industry sectors, two experts say.
Chuck Thorpe is the point man for the White House on advanced manufacturing and robotics. A computer scientist on loan from Carnegie Mellon University, a hotbed for robotics, Thorpe spoke last week to members of the Minnesota High Tech Association and its affiliate, Robotics Alley. Andrew Borene, general counsel of Edina-based ReconRobotics, is executive director of Robotics Alley.
QChuck, what's your mission?
AMy mission at the White House is to encourage robotics and advance manufacturing and to make connections. The best way is to move around the country and see cool things. I have visited ReconRobotics and Par Systems (which makes robotic arms for handling nuclear and other material). Both Par and Recon are building valuable technology for the nation. I can see what they have on the market and I can go back to Washington and make connections between them and other people and potential partners.
QHow does this tie into job creation?
AAdvanced manufacturing [companies] are making our highways safer, our brave soldiers safer [with ground robots and aerial drones] our manufacturing more competitive and our workers more productive. These are growth companies. We in the United States have a wonderful record of inventing things, but not as good a record of keeping manufacturing and jobs in the U.S. We can compete with [Chinese and other low-cost factories] with smart tools, better-educated and more-productive workers.
These are not our fathers' manufacturing jobs that just require strong backs and effort and a good work ethic. We need to make sure today's workforce learns the math and science and gets the training to be CNC machine operators. [Baby boomers] all had shop class. We learned to work on stuff. Today's kids don't get that opportunity. The cars work better. And kids don't tinker as much. We need to re-energize invention and tinkering and the skills to play with things and invent and build prototypes.
QWhere does Minnesota fit?
AYou are famous for the big companies you have, the University of Minnesota and the increasing amount of robotics at the smaller colleges and these wonderful start-up companies you have. You're on the map. The president advanced a series of manufacturing initiatives. Honeywell is a partner. The idea is to have big companies, small companies, universities, with a little help from government, come together and form a cluster ... and do all the stuff you have to go through to turn innovation into products.
The big evidence of that is Germany. They have 60 institutes that are the ''halfway houses'' between basic research and commercial products. Germany has about the same labor costs and environmental regulations as the U.S. Germany has bridged the gap between ideas and products. They have a manufacturing surplus where we still have a manufacturing deficit. We're trying to do the same kinds of things in our way. Minnesota is well poised to win one of these institutes.
QAndrew, what are the robotics hotbeds? And talk about your quest to create a Minnesota robotics center of excellence.
AThe robotics hubs are Boston, Pittsburgh and Silicon Valley. We fill the gap. The White House is looking at these innovations clusters where you bring together R&D at universities and big giant companies and bridge the divide ... where ideas and new technology tend to die between the lab and marketplace. I believe the Twin Cities and our region can pivot off the great success in biomedical and life sciences, surgical robotics, our legacy industries, and turn this corner into a marketplace that will involve security, agriculture, medicine and other industries.
QChuck, what kind of money has the federal government put into the robotics initiative?
AThe National Robotics Initiative is $70 million for basic research this year. We still lead in medical and defense and household robots. We lost the lead [to Germany] in manufacturing robotics. South Korea pledged $750 million in 2009. The South Korean government is investing to be the leading robotic manufacturer by 2018. We don't invest directly into companies. We want the companies to set the agenda for the innovation clusters, not the government.
QAndrew, what's the future?
AWe're not going to claw back old-industry jobs. The challenge is to use innovation, education and industry to create the new manufacturing jobs. For every [licensed] engineer, you need seven technicians. There's a chance to make manufacturing blossom in this country.
Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144