James R. Hagerty: Meet the New Generation of Robots for Manufacturing

robots-ABB-wsj

They are nimbler, lighter and work better with humans. They might even help bring manufacturing back to the U.S.

James R. Hagerty writes: A new generation of robots is on the way—smarter, more mobile, more collaborative and more adaptable. They promise to bring major changes to the factory floor, as well as potentially to the global competitive landscape.

Robots deployed in manufacturing today tend to be large, dangerous to anyone who strays too close to their whirling arms, and limited to one task, like welding, painting or hoisting heavy parts.

“Robots are going to change the economic calculus for manufacturing. People will spend less time chasing low-cost labor.”

— Hal Sirkin, a Chicago-based senior partner of Boston Consulting Group

The latest models entering factories and being developed in labs are a different breed. They can work alongside humans without endangering them and help assemble all sorts of objects, as large as aircraft engines and as small and delicate as smartphones. Soon, some should be easy enough to program and deploy that they no longer will need expert overseers.

“Researchers hope robots will become so easy to set up and move around that they can reduce the need for companies to make heavy investments in tools and structures that are bolted to the floor.”

That will change not only the way an increasing number of products are made. It could also mean an upheaval in the competition between companies and nations. As robots become less costly and more accessible, they should help smaller manufacturers go toe to toe with giants. By reducing labor costs, they also may allow the U.S. and other high-wage countries to get back into some of the processes that have been ceded to China, Mexico and other countries with vast armies of lower-paid workers.

“That would allow manufacturers to make shorter runs of niche or custom products without having to spend lots of time and money reconfiguring factories.”

Some of the latest robots are designed specifically for the tricky job of assembling consumer-electronics items, now mostly done by hand in Asia. At least one company promises its robots eventually will be sewing garments in the U.S., taking over one of the ultimate sweatshop tasks.

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“Robots are going to change the economic calculus for manufacturing,” says Hal Sirkin, a Chicago-based senior partner of Boston Consulting Group. “People will spend less time chasing low-cost labor.”

The changing face

Today, industrial robots are most common in auto plants—which have long been the biggest users of robot technology—and they do jobs that don’t take much delicacy: heavy lifting, welding, applying glue and painting. People still do most of the final assembly of cars, especially when it involves small parts or wiring that needs to be guided into place.

[Read the full text here, at WSJ]

Now robots are taking on some jobs that require more agility. At a Renault SA plant in Cleon, France, robots made by Universal Robots AS of Denmark drive screws into engines, especially those that go into places people find hard to get at. The robots employ a reach of more than 50 inches and six rotating joints to do the work. They also verify that parts are properly fastened and check to make sure the correct part is being used.

At a Renault car plant, robots drive screws into engines—a sign of their progress in handling small parts. Photo: Renault

At a Renault car plant, robots drive screws into engines—a sign of their progress in handling small parts. Photo: Renault

The Renault effort demonstrates a couple of trends that are drastically changing how robots are made. For one, they’re getting much lighter. The Renault units weigh only about 64 pounds, so “we can easily remove them and reinstall them in another place,” says Dominique Graille, a manager at Renault, which is using 15 robots from Universal now and plans to double that by year-end. Read the rest of this entry »


Anti-GMO Activist’s Stunning Reversal

While Golden Rice was developed over ten years at the miniscule total cost of $2.6 million, in an extraordinary public-private partnership using funds donated by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Swiss Federation, the National Science Foundation, and the European Union, Greenpeace International alone annually spends about $270 million annually, and upwards of $7 million each year specifically dedicated to burying Golden Rice and any other food or crop developed using biotechnology.

While Golden Rice was developed over ten years at the miniscule total cost of $2.6 million, in an extraordinary public-private partnership using funds donated by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Swiss Federation, the National Science Foundation, and the European Union, Greenpeace International alone annually spends about $270 million annually, and upwards of $7 million each year specifically dedicated to burying Golden Rice and any other food or crop developed using biotechnology.annually, and upwards of $7 million each year specifically dedicated to burying Golden Rice and any other food or crop developed using biotechnology.

Julie Gunlock writes:

Mark Lynas gets right to the point:

“I want to start with some apologies. For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.”

Lynas uttered that stunningly frank apology last week during a lecture at the Oxford Farming Conference.  It’s a big deal. A big reversal.

Here’s why.

Golden Rice grain being held by Dr Parminder Virk in screenhouse of Golden Rice plants.

Golden Rice grain being held by Dr Parminder Virk in screenhouse of Golden Rice plants.

Mark Lynas, a journalist and environmental activists, is one of the founders of the anti-GMO movement. As Slate reports, as recently as 2008, Lynas blamed corporate greed for threatening world health. In fact, the anti-GMO hysteria we see today (which was on full display on the Women for Food Freedom Facebook page when my Policy Focus on GM food was published) can, to some degree, be blamed on the writing and political activisim of Mark Lynas.

Editor’s note: In a typical example of anti-GMO alarmism, revealing breathtaking scientific ignorance, one punditfromanotherplanet reader complains about possible food allergies, “gastrointestinal problems” (in the first world, of course) and actually boasts about promoting what he believes is a more beneficial approach to global hunger: giving half a box of boutique, “community supported” produce to local food banks (as if this addresses global starvation risks for millions of people who are the victims of ignorant, pro-death anti-GMO activists:

“I would say number of people that we know are affected by GMOs? Very unclear. ‘Food allergies’ and gastrointestinal problems in the US are hugely on the rise. Inserting a gene for a pesticide into a plant that we eat is very very different from selecting the best tomato or crossing two plants. Making seeds that grow plants that cannot reproduce risks endangering our food supply. I have been buying a community supported agriculture box from a local farmer for the last 10 years: five different farms, in fact. This year I will buy the large box and give half to the food bank. I have time this year too for a garden and I will grow some food.

Then, drkottaway adds this little masterpiece of unintended comedy, drawing a comparison between the alleged risks of GMO crops, and the health hazards of smoking tobacco.

“…shoot, look at how long it took to prove that smoking harmed people and how hard the companies fought that and how they hid information. I can afford to avoid GMOs and help another hungry person avoid GMOs.”

True, and here in the reality-based community, we can make an honest, realistic effort to help alleviate life-threatening micronutrient deficiencies in developing countries, and join the global fight to shut down VAD. What is VAD? Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is responsible for 500,000 cases of irreversible blindness and up to 2 million deaths each year. Giving food to food banks is laudable, of course. But let’s not pretend it’s a substitute for serious intervention in preventable deaths. Shoot, I wouldn’t want to be among the pro-death alarmists who participate in promoting ignorance, hunger, starvation, and blindness, would you?

It is therefore remarkable that he has made this reversal. And he’s not being shy about it.  I encourage anyone interested in this subject to read his whole speech, but here’s just a sample of how he discovered many of his assumptions about GMOs were wrong:

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Journalist and political activist Mark Lynas

I’d assumed that it would increase the use of chemicals. It turned out that pest-resistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide.

I’d assumed that GM benefited only the big companies. It turned out that billions of dollars of benefits were accruing to farmers needing fewer inputs.

I’d assumed that Terminator Technology was robbing farmers of the right to save seed. It turned out that hybrids did that long ago, and that Terminator never happened.

I’d assumed that no-one wanted GM. Actually what happened was that Bt cotton was pirated into India and roundup ready soya into Brazil because farmers were so eager to use them.

I’d assumed that GM was dangerous. It turned out that it was safer and more precise than conventional breeding using mutagenesis for example; GM just moves a couple of genes, whereas conventional breeding mucks about with the entire genome in a trial and error way.

But what about mixing genes between unrelated species? The fish and the tomato? Turns out viruses do that all the time, as do plants and insects and even us – it’s called gene flow.

Read the rest of this entry »


Want to Be a Millionaire? Move to Hong Kong

A luxury car parks at an old district area in Hong Kong Wednesday Jan. 15, 2014. Associated Press

A luxury car parks at an old district area in Hong Kong Wednesday Jan. 15, 2014. Associated Press

For China Real Time ReportJason Chow writes: Hong Kong mints millionaires faster than any of the world’s other top 25 economic powerhouses, according to a new survey on the rich by Capgemini and RBC Wealth Management.

“Hong Kong is a particularly fertile place for millionaires.”

Tis the season of wealth reports – the new 2014 World Wealth Report is the second global survey of the world’s rich in as many weeks (Boston Consulting Group released its wealth tome last week). And again, the latest survey confirmed an obvious outcome of Asia’s economic boom: The region is home to more millionaires than ever.

“The city’s booming real-estate market, along with its ties to China, were cited as reasons for the huge surge in the wealthy ranks.”

But the Capgemini/RBC report says Hong Kong is a particularly fertile place for millionaires. In the past five years, the total number of high-net-worth individuals—those with more than US$1 million in investable assets, not including primary residence, collectibles or consumer goods—grew at an annual rate of 27%.

That growth rate of wealthy individuals is by far the fastest, above the global 10% average and far higher than the growth rates for Singapore and China, which sat around 12% and 16%, respectively. Read the rest of this entry »


Birth Tourism: Chinese Flock to the U.S. to Have Babies

A woman feeds a baby in a residential area in Beijing on Aug. 8, 2013  Wang Zhao / AFP / Getty Images

A woman feeds a baby in a residential area in Beijing on Aug. 8, 2013 Wang Zhao / AFP / Getty Images

Jiang Wenjun was getting ready to go to America. His wife, due to give birth to their son any day, was already there. Like any expectant parents, the Shanghai couple agonized over how best to prepare for the arrival — and upbringing — of their firstborn child. American citizenship, they decided, was one of the finest gifts they could bestow. “America is the strongest country in the world,” says Jiang, whose son was born just days after he eventually arrived in California this month. “We want our child to have the best future.”

The U.S. is one of the few nations where simply being born on its soil confers citizenship on a newborn. That policy has spawned a birth-tourism industry, in which pregnant foreigners flock to American hospitals to secure U.S. passports for their babies. Although the foreign couple can’t acquire U.S. nationality themselves, once their American-born offspring turn 21 they can theoretically sponsor their parents for future U.S. citizenship. Another perk: these American-born kids can take advantage of the U.S. education system, even paying lower in-state fees for public universities, depending on where they were delivered. (California is a popular birth-tourism destination because of its well-known university system.)

More rich Chinese than ever are sending their families and money abroad. One study of Chinese millionaires found that half had either emigrated or were thinking of doing so. Boston Consulting Group estimates that Chinese have some $450 billion stockpiled overseas. Read the rest of this entry »