Automation and Robotics News — update from Tony Zaragoza

[Note:  This issue of automation and robotics news includes an archives link.  That link will now be included in the menu bar to the right of your screen for easy access — Lew Rosenbaum]

Automation and Robotics News–March 28, 2010

Highlights: Postal automation in England, Stimulus money for robots, Automation in China, Rio Tinto robot mining, automation and solar cells, NYC computerization: costly privatization and control of workers, robotic space shuttle, and Online grocer powered by automation.



Boeing’s robo-copter flexes its muscle

Jonathan Skillings, Mon Mar 15 2010

Unmanned A160T Hummingbird demonstrates ability to conduct autonomous resupply operations, a preview of front-line operations of the not-too-distant future.


Britain: Communication Workers Union sells out postal workers

By Tony Robson, 16 March 2010

Postal workers should vote decisively against acceptance of “Business Transformation 2010 and Beyond,” the agreement worked out between Royal Mail (RM) and the Communication Workers Union (CWU). The CWU called off the national strike last year and has enforced a no-strike agreement ever since. For the past four months it has participated in closed door meetings with management—chaired by Trades Union Congress representative Roger Poole. Its agreement to the confidentiality clause and the drawn out nature of the talks is because RM remains unchanged in its main objectives. The problem for the CWU has been how to package an agreement antithetical to its members’ interests. Secrecy is being followed by deception. CWU Deputy General Secretary Dave Ward said in announcing the agreement, “We have always said that we couldn’t face away from change. The agreement recognises the reality of automation, competition and the financial challenges facing the company, but it does so in a way that puts the interests of CWU members at its heart. Both sides have committed to improving industrial relations and ensuring a more positive working relationship in the best interests of everyone at Royal Mail.”

# Brazil surgical robot fixes heart in Latin America first

Sydney Morning Herald – Mar 19, 2010

Brazilian surgeons used a multi-armed robot to repair a hole in a woman’s heart in the first operation of its kind in Latin America, they told AFP Friday.

Underground Robot to Blow Up Bunkers (blog) – Mar 15, 2010

The US Defense Threat Reduction Agency wants a robot capable of navigating underground—drilling through soil and rock—to deliver an explosive load.

Stimulus Bill Helps Pay for Robots

Posted 15 Mar 2010 at 15:58 UTC by Rog-a-matic

To encourage small businesses to invest in equipment, stimulus bills over the last couple of years have offered the “Section 179” rules. This allows a business to accelerate depreciation on equipment which deducts from their income and therefore reduces their tax burden. Rick Heflin of the 17-employee Custom Electronics Company of Maryland was faced with the question when his tax bill came up and decided to go for a new pick-and-place system. The robot can place 4000 parts per hour and improves the firm’s throughput.

# In search of low labor costs, or automation

By Stephen Moore, March 26th, 2010

China has long been seen as a nation with a massive labor force available at world beating rates, but might that be changing? Factories in export-oriented Southern China are facing labor shortages as migrant laborers return home and realize that the grass is just as green. Driven by booming domestic demand, jobs are easier to come by and though the wages may be lower, the cost of living is a fraction of what it is in the city. With skilled staff at a premium, one European machine builder with a manufacturing operation in China recently told Plastics Today that it now is almost as cheap to find a decent injection machine operator in Malaysia – at a shade over $210 per month – as it is in Shanghai at rates ranging from $235–-290 per month. That comes as a surprise given that outside of the city/state of Singapore, Malaysia has the highest labor costs among any Southeast Asian nation. So will we ever see a mass exodus of manufacturing from China to lower cost locales like Indonesia and Vietnam? Most likely the answer is a resounding “No.” For one, domestic demand in China for all manner of commodities is growing and it makes sense to serve the local market with local production. Second, companies probably often over-estimated the cost advantage of Chinese labor, and will start looking at ways to replace labor, just as they have done in higher labor-cost regions.  Sure, labor costs were a fraction in China of what they are in the West, but they might only represent a small portion of overall costs for some processing operations, and productivity might be a fraction of what it was at the processor’s home base. These savings could be wiped out by higher logistics and electricity costs, for example. Thirdly, plastics processors are realizing more and more that no matter how low labor costs might be, removing the human factor from the production flow generally leads to higher quality products. After all, robotic take-out guarantees constant cycle times and no fingerprints or scratches on the products. Prompted by higher labor costs and worker shortages, Chinese manufacturers of such commodity products as cigarette lighters are reportedly now turning to automation and finding that, if coupled with the right quality of injection machine, and then productivity can be significantly enhanced. At the higher end of the scale, foreign-owned or -managed medical molders in China already boast the same level of automation as back home. Purveyors of automation equipment could be looking forward to monster returns come April when Chinaplas opens its doors in Shanghai.

# Robots, space technology run Rio Tinto’s mining miracle

28 Mar 2010, 1300 hrs IST, AGENCIES

DAMPIER (Australia): The heavy clank of machinery rings out across a seemingly deserted Outback mine site as an invisible <>satellite signal fires Rio Tinto’s production line into motion.  Massive stackers and reclaimers begin the task of sifting through rust-coloured piles of rich iron ore, readying them for the rail journey hundreds of kilometres from mine to port.  It’s an industrious scene — with hardly a living being in sight. “People frequently ask whether we have anyone working here at all,” one miner at Rio’s Dampier operations said.  “Due to automation and stuff most people are pretty well tucked away from the heat. There’s not a lot of manual workers.” Automation has long been a part of the mining industry, but advances in satellite, motion-sensor technology and robotics have made the stuff of science fiction a fact of everyday life. Machines which scoop the ore, dump it on a conveyor belt and hose it down are now controlled from the air-conditioned comfort of Rio Tinto’s Perth operations centre, 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) away from the arid mine pit. Hundreds of specially trained operators who once directed machines from on-site offices watch and direct the action from afar using satellite technology, with surveillance cameras feeding into some 440 monitors.

# Robots Do the Work of Multiple Solar Labs

Alyssa Danigelis | Thu Mar 25, 2010 03:00 PM ET

The National Renewable Energy Lab, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, has some new deputies in its push to develop cheaper, more efficient solar cells. Meet the NREL bots. In the shiny Process Development and Integration Laboratory (PDIL) on NREL’s Golden, Colorado campus, six special robots are assembling, measuring, and analyzing photovoltaic cells.

# Juan Gonzalez: NY Pays 230 “Consultants” $722M Per Year for Computer Project 7 Years Behind Schedule

In a cover story for the New York Daily News, Democracy Now! co-host Juan Gonzalez reports New York City is “paying some 230 ‘consultants’ an average salary of $400,000 a year for a computer project that is seven years behind schedule and vastly over budget. The payments continue despite Mayor Bloomberg’s admission the computerized timekeeping and payroll system—called CityTime—is ‘a disaster.’”


# Computer-Controlled Swarm of Bacteria Builds Tiny Pyramid

Erico Guizzo // Thu, March 25, 2010

Researchers at the NanoRobotics Laboratory of the École Polytechnique de Montréal, in Canada, are putting swarms of bacteria to work, using them to perform micro-manipulations and even propel microrobots. Led by Professor Sylvain Martel, the researchers want to use flagellated bacteria to carry drugs into tumors, act as sensing agents for detecting pathogens, and operate micro-factories that could perform pharmacological and genetic tests. They also want to use the bacteria as micro-workers for building things. Things like a tiny step pyramid.

#Upcoming Robot and AI Movie List

Posted 18 Mar 2010 at 03:56 UTC by The Swirling Brain


#Getting the Most Out of Foundry Robots

March 17, 2010
It is easy to typecast foundry robots. True, they are the tough ones, able to lift heavy loads in harsh, hot environments. But foundry robots are fully capable of playing other roles as well.  Industrial robots prove the ideal solution for a wide range of foundry jobs – from material handling to dispensing, finishing and painting. Find out how foundry robots are well-suited for many different applications.


# Phantom of the Operating Shuttle?

Posted 16 Mar 2010 by The Swirling Brain reports about a mysterious Robotic Shuttle that will be launched April 19th. This is the first time I’ve even heard of such a shuttle replacement. I mean, I thought NASA dumped the idea of a shuttle completely and went for the super Apollo type mission to go to the Moon or Mars? So at a time when mothballing the old Space Shuttle debate is going ballistic, what happens? Well, it looks like the Air Force pulled a fast one and went ahead and had it’s own space shuttle secretly built by Boeing Phantom Works. The new autonomous robotic Space Shuttle is dubbed the X37B.


Drone Attacks Are Legit Self-Defense, Says State Dept. Lawyer

Nathan Hodge, March 26, 2010

America’s undeclared drone war has been controversial, for any number of reasons: Pakistani politicians have cried foul over “counterproductive” strikes. Critics worry they may create more popular support for militants. And civil liberties groups have asked whether, in effect, it amounts to a program of targeted killing. Now the State Department’s top legal adviser has offered a rationale for the ongoing campaign: Legitimate self-defense. In a keynote address last night to the American Society of International Law, State Department legal adviser Harold Koh said it was “the considered view of this administration” that drone operations, including lethal attacks, “comply with all applicable law, including the laws of war.”
Read More


# Automation Powers U.K. Grocer


HATFIELD, England—In a sprawling warehouse north of London, Web grocer Ocado Ltd. is making an expensive effort to bring high-tech methods to Internet operations that are often low tech elsewhere. British online grocer Ocado Ltd. is eyeing a possible IPO that could come this summer. A key element of the pitch to investors is the company’s futuristic central warehouse in Hatfield, England. WSJ’s Paul Sonne reports. Most online grocers fulfill Web orders by gathering goods from the shelf of a local supermarket and then loading them in a truck for delivery. But Ocado has developed a highly automated, centralized operation that dispatches products to 65% of British postal codes from a single warehouse.  The operation is spread across 23 acres of floor space on an old airfield. Ocado has built a complex, automated system that gathers items using its own algorithm-driven system. Baskets travel along a 10-mile maze of conveyor belts, stopping at bagging stations where workers follow a computer’s directions, loading products and shipping off 90,000 orders a week with close to 99.9% accuracy. Ocado labors in the long shadow left by companies like Webvan, a San Francisco-based online grocery start-up that was founded in the late 1990s and extended its footprint rapidly using venture capital but went bust in 2001. Around that time, three former Goldman Sachs & Co. bankers started Ocado in a one-room office near London’s Victoria Station. Now, after 10 years of steady growth, the company is considering what could be one of the biggest IPOs on the London Stock Exchange—estimated at up to £1.1 billion ($1.65 billion)—in the next two years.


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