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ILP Institute Insider

May 12, 2016

Building a National Network for Robotics Manufacturing

MIT teams with leading companies and universities to launch the Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Institute.

Eric Bender

Automobile manufacturers want assembly lines that can efficiently produce cars in highly varied configurations. Aircraft makers are seeking ways to assist their highly skilled workers as they make their way around giant planes. Suppliers across many industries are looking to scale up production seamlessly from prototypes to high volume and integrate disruptive fabrication methods such as 3D printing. Smaller firms that sat out the first rounds of robotics manufacturing want to stay competitive by installing turnkey systems that can go right to work without a robotics guru on staff.

Harry Asada
MIT Ford Professor of Engineering
These challenges will be met by rapidly evolving robotic manufacturing technologies, many originally developed for quite different applications in robotics and related fields. That’s the vision behind the Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Institute (ARM), a new national consortium led by MIT, Carnegie-Mellon University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Texas A&M University, the University of California at Berkeley, and other academic powerhouses in robotic manufacturing research.

ARM is a national team of academic, industry, and government partners aimed to accelerate the development and adoption of next-generation robotic manufacturing systems. “This is a game-changer in this country’s manufacturing landscape,” says Harry Asada, professor of mechanical engineering and MIT lead for the ARM program.

Now enlisting industry partners, the consortium addresses a funding opportunity from the U.S. National Institute of Standards & Technology’s National Network for Manufacturing Innovation initiative. The robotics manufacturing program aims to match $70 million in federal money with matching industry funds for a total of over $140 million in research spending over five years.

ARMing industry
ARM’s major benefits for industry partners include access to intellectual property generated by the entire national network, and the ability to run either pre-competitive or proprietary projects that can draw on research talent across the network, Asada says.

Moreover, participants can exploit the testbed facilities being established at hubs at Carnegie-Mellon and Georgia Tech, where robotic equipment firms, academic experts and industrial customers can study new manufacturing systems or prototypes in operation. “This will be a major change in the way we develop robotics technologies,” Asada says. “It’s no longer just inside small companies or robot vendors; the testbed is a place where the users and the vendors can work together with the academic partners. Small companies, in particular, can use this as a major opportunity to connect to corporate manufacturers.”

ARM also places high importance on worker training and education for advanced robotics, in collaboration with local governments, academic institutions, and company training efforts. “This is the way to improve the American worker’s productivity and effectiveness for the future,” Asada says, adding that these partnerships also will lend perspectives on dealing with the related labor issues.

Additionally, the national network will offer companies the ability to contribute to standards and regulations for next-generation robotic manufacturing. “There are no mechanisms currently available to address this need properly,” Asada says. “But ARM is a group involving the majority of industry and the majority of academic research institutions. We can look at the future trends, put together all the knowledge, and help to chart the way to create appropriate standards.”

ARM offers several levels of corporate participation:
  • Tier 1 provides royalty-free non-exclusive access to all ARM intellectual property and a seat on the consortium’s governing board. The annual fee is $100,000 plus $250,000 of in-kind contribution.
  • Tier 2 gives intellectual property rights for selected projects, and one seat on the governing board is shared by all Tier 2 members. The annual cost is $70,000 plus $200,000 in-kind contribution.
  • Tier 3 participants subscribe for individual projects. The annual commitment is $25,000 plus a project-specific in-kind contribution.
  • Startup member is for small firms subscribing for individual projects. The annual charge is $5,000 plus a project-specific in-kind contribution.
The consortium has been joined by a number of major corporate players in aerospace, microelectronics, and consumer products along with smaller firms in various industries.

To become a partner, companies must commit by mid-June.

On May 27, an Industry Day at MIT will outline the program and its value proposition for companies large and small. Learn more and register here.

Evolving the manufacturing ecosystem
“ARM has set up three initial research topic areas,” Asada says. “One is collaborative robotics, in which humans work side by side with robots. Both sides can cross-check each other, to improve quality and productivity. The second topic is automation of automation — with very short product cycles, we need to cut the lead time for setting up automation systems. And the third topic we call mass production in quantities of one. Even in the auto industry, for example, there are numerous combinations of manufacturing operations needed to build different car models on the same line. That’s not a simple job.”

In addition to MIT, ARM’s academic partners include Carnegie-Mellon, Georgia Tech, the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Texas A&M University, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Connecticut, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Southern California.

“This is really a dream team, with the major contributors to manufacturing robotics over the years,” Asada says. “We have never worked together at this scale. Now under this big umbrella of a national network, we can engage all of these academic institutions with our industrial partners. We are creating a new ecosystem for robotics manufacturing in which academia, industry and the government sector can work together.”

“We have a clear message from the federal government that they expect us to spearhead an effort to bring up American manufacturing capabilities,” he adds. “This is really time to put it all together. We can provide robotic technologies that are easy to use; even first-time users can set up robots without the assistance of skilled technicians. We can engage manufacturers, small or large, who at one time gave up on advanced robotics manufacturing in this country. We can do it here.”

For more information about ARM and the Industry Day at MIT on May 27, contact Harry Asada or Ron Spangler.