24 minutes | Jan 3rd 2021

Mass Robotics: Tom Ryden

Tom Ryden, Executive Director of Mass Robotics, shares the story of how he got into robotics, and some of his career’s most pivotal moments. Danny: Hello, and welcome to today’s IndustrialSage Executive Series. I am joined by Tom Ryden. He is the executive director of Mass Robotics all the way up in Massachusetts. Tom, thank you so much for joining me today. I’m very excited to learn more about your organization. I’ve heard a lot about it and what’s going on. We’ve had some previous guests here. So just thank you so much for joining me today. Tom: Well, thanks for having me. Really excited to talk a little bit about Mass Robotics and robotics in general. Danny: So real quick, if you could just give me a quick synopsis, a high level of Mass Robotics. What do you guys do? Tom: Sure. So Mass Robotics is an independent non-profit. Our mission is to support and grow the robotics, AI, IoT industry and really support it and see the adoption of this type of technology. Danny: Excellent. Well, there’s those– we all know that’s huge, lots of digital transformation happening right now relative to all those spaces. So I’m excited to learn more about your organization, what you guys are doing, how you guys are helping companies. But before we jump into that, I just want to get in to learn a little bit more about you, about Tom. So Tom, tell me, how did you get into this space? Tom: So I’ve actually been in robotics for a long time. I’ve been in automation, first with chemical automation, things like that, autosamplers, but got into robotics through an interesting story. A friend of mine had a small company doing ground robots and got an offer to be acquired by an up-and-coming young company at the time called ISR. So we chatted a little bit about it, and I was fascinated by this young company which turned out to be iRobot. And so they ended up acquiring his company. I ended up joining iRobot because I thought the mission, what they were trying to do was really fascinating. And I was there for a number of years and saw some great growth in that company and through the robotics that they developed and then, went on to start some other robotics companies. I sold my last company and was thinking about retiring, taking some time off, and a couple of folks from the industry came and said hey, we’re starting this new non-profit. Would you be interested in helping out? And that was five years ago, so I just have been doing it and loving it. It’s a great way to get exposed to so much different types of technology and really try to help these young companies get going. Danny: Yeah, no, that’s awesome. How did you get into robotics before that? Was it something that you studied? Was it something as a kid that you were interested in? What was that aha moment for you? Tom: Yeah, so my background is in engineering, electrical engineering initially. It was a unique way of– I love seeing things move and being able to make things move. And so I was not always in the kind of science fiction type of thing. One of the cofounders of iRobot, Helen, talks about her experiences when she was young and seeing the first robots coming out of some of the movies. That wasn’t really my background. I was just enjoying the mechanical… making things move… and then had an opportunity to do that and, from a young engineering, just enjoyed doing that type of robots. But when you actually get to make robots that physically move, and I ended up working on what are called bomb-disposal robots or robots that can go down-range and look at a device that might be a bomb or something and allow the operator to really stay far away and have the robot do that. When I learned, wow, that’s something that these robots can really do, it’s just a great way for this technology to be used. Danny: Yeah, that’s so interesting. It’s funny that you say, you mention that the idea of, from the movie standpoint of robots, that wasn’t– it was more from a mechanical thing. It reminds me of a funny little– my son, he’s seven, almost eight. He loves robots, all things robots. I even found him reading some industry magazines that I’ll have. He’ll be going through those. I think it’s super fascinating, although he does like all the movie stuff. He came down last night terrified about robots who were chasing him or something like that. Tom: One of the parts of our mission is STEM education because children genuinely love robots, and there’s so many great tools now that are available to get kids excited about a career in the sciences and engineering by using these robots and having them code them and make them move and make them do things, even starting down at a young age like your son, and we’re excited about that. Danny: Yeah, that’s super cool. That stuff, I’ll have to learn more about that because I know he would, and I think my daughters too, would enjoy that as well. But he, in particular, has definitely got a very engineering mind, wants to know how things work and gets very frustrated if he doesn’t know, wants to get driving in deeper. Anyways, I digress. So throughout your career, you mentioned you had sold a business before. So tell me a little bit about that. You mentioned you were involved with iRobot. Somewhere down the line, you started a business, then you sold it. What did that look like? Tom: Yeah, so I joined iRobot when they were fairly small, a bunch of engineers above a donut shop just outside of MIT, and stayed with them through the growth and then, through eventually the IPO. And then, after the IPO–I really enjoy the small company feeling. And it’s not that iRobot had changed. Colin Angle who is the CEO really did a good job of trying to keep that small culture, small business entrepreneurial culture. But I wanted to try something else, so I joined another friend from iRobot and another engineer from Polycom, and we started a company to design and build telepresence robots. And we ended up raising a significant amount of money from VCs. And that’s, in many respects, a blessing and a curse. I think it’s great to get that money. It allows you to design and develop the products. There’s also timelines, and one of the things that’s still a challenge with robots is the adoption, the rate of adoption. And so this was a robot that was meant to allow you to be in two places at once, allow you to have a physical presence and a robot be somewhere else, and you control it. And the adoption with that has been slow. It’s been growing over time, but not to the rate that a VC wanted to see. So they were encouraging us to find an exit. We sold to another robotics company, which was great, right in the area. And they continue to sell and manufacture that product. That was an interesting experience going through that. Danny: Yeah, definitely VCs and all the funding, it changes it a little bit or a lot of bit. And like you mentioned, there are definitely pros and cons for that. So I would say, and this is a question that I didn’t send before. For those who are listening or watching, surprise, we send questions ahead of time. That’s a given. But over your career, what have been some defining moments? Or what have been some–if there was one or two things that you could think off the top of your head that has been a big, defining, shining moment in your career where maybe it was something where you hear these stories– oh, we were back against the wall, or it was something where you had a major technological breakthrough or that big aha moment. Did you have any of those? Tom: Yeah, I think it was with the development of what was called the PackBot. That was the robot I was talking to you about before which was a ground-based robot that could do bomb disposal. We actually got into that through a contract with the UK Ministry of Defense. And the UK had had experiences with these types of roadside bombs with some of the challenges they had in Northern Ireland. And so they really had a great history and a knowledge. We came at it from the, hey, we’re smart engineers, and we can do this. And really, the aha moment was when we were spending some time in the UK on a range, and they said, “You don’t really understand what we do.” And we said, “Well, we kind of conceptually understand how you go and do this.” He goes, “No, you don’t really understand how this works.” And they took us and put us through some scenarios where we actually, one of our engineers actually had to go down-range to a car that had a bomb in it. And just really living through that experience gives you a different perspective of how to solve the problem. It was really around weight; we were trying to get– they had a requirement for a very low-weight robot so that it could be hand-carried, and we kept saying, no, this is as light as it’s going to get. This is truly as light as it’s going to get. We’ve done everything we can from an engineering perspective. And that’s when we went and one of the engineers put on a bomb suit which weighs a lot, grabbed the robot, carried it down to this car, walked back and said, we have to make this robot lighter because we can’t give that kind of weight to these guys to carry down. And so really just living through the end-user and his experience and understanding what they’re trying to do and what they’re trying to accomplish and how the technology can help really gave us a different perspective of how to approach that problem and how to solve that problem. Danny: I love that; that’s a great story. I think that that can be applied towards anything in any industry. And you see that happening a lot in the manufacturing space, supply chain, certainly robotics, technology. You look at start-ups in general. I have a great idea, and this is amazing. But just because you can do it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a market or there’s a way and so, really, as you mentioned, getting in the shoes of that end-user, getting to experience what they’re experiencing, it creates more purpose. You’re like, okay, somehow we’ve got to figure out how to make this thing lighter because this is completely impractical. It’s just not going to work. I think it’s a great story. Tom: I’ll give you another story. So I was on an assembly line recently. The company was looking to automate, and so we were on the floor looking at this process that an operator was doing. It was fairly repetitive, and we were talking about different ways. We were there for quite a while. And then, all of a sudden I noticed the operator did something different. And we had been watching him for at least an hour, and they were doing the same repetitive process. It caught me out of the corner of my eye, so I asked them. I said, what did he do? And we went over and talked to the operator, and they said, every so often one of these parts has a little bit of flashing or a burr in it, and we have to deburr it. And I have this little tool; I go psht, boom. So it went from a very simple automation process to something that, yes, robots could still do, but now we had to add a vision inspection, more degrees of freedom to be able to actually add that little step to take that piece out. And also, then, you look at the ROI because now we’ve had to add this additional equipment to do this one task that happens fairly infrequently. Does it still make sense to automate that? So really getting to understand the actual problem at a really fine detail is critical. And it’s one of the things we talk to our start-ups all the time about, how much have you spent with the customer, and by the way, go spend more time because nobody spends enough time. Danny: Well, that’s awesome. What a perfect pivot point now as we go over to Mass Robotics and what I think about what you do. And I love the fact that you say you’re talking with start-ups and that that’s something that you go look at. Tell me a little bit more about your organization, how you help. You said it’s a non-profit. You obviously have an incubator, or you’ve got space for companies to be able to develop. Tell me more about, why did that start? Tom: Yeah, so really it was folks from the industry that came, and they recognized that a lot of technology was being developed in the Boston area. But those start-ups were going to different areas to start their company, and why were we losing them? There was a number of reasons, but part of it was having that strong ecosystem that allowed the start-ups to get all the resources they needed. At the time, Boston really wasn’t known for doing some of the hardware as much as they could, and so we formed this facility. It’s an innovation center. It’s not really an accelerator; it’s a shared workspace where our start-ups pay a fee to be there, but it’s a pretty nominal fee. So it’s less than if they went and rented space elsewhere. But in addition to space, we provide a lot of services and support that helps those companies. So everything from tools, software; just as joining, they get great software from Autodesk and SolidWorks and Altium and things like that. They get access to a number of different robots, machine tools, things like that. And then, they also, hopefully we can help them find investors, find customers, that type of thing. So really building a community where everybody can talk and work with each other and help each other I think is an important aspect of what we do. Danny: No, that’s awesome. That’s exciting. You said it was started five years ago. Is that correct? Tom: Yeah, so the idea came about 2015. We actually opened our first facility in 2017, and we expanded. We now house 56, I think we’re going on 57 companies in our facility. So it’s really taken off. Danny: Excellent. Now, you’ve got an association side as well, so you’ve got that start-up piece but then, on the association side, what does that look like? How many members do you have in that side? Tom: Yeah, so we’re not really a membership organization, but we support other robotics companies in the community that we work in. So we work with a little over 350 companies, and they are, as you can imagine, a broad range of robotics companies and IoT companies. But everything from large companies like an iRobot or Amazon Robotics down to the start-ups that we house, a lot of mid-size companies that are doing really fascinating things in factory automation, warehouse automation, things like that. And we are really just trying to get them together as a community, understand what resources they need, make connections for them. And then, we advocate at a state and a little bit at a federal level around rules and regulations to support the adoption of this technology. Danny: Absolutely. Well, that sounds good; that makes sense. I’ve talked to a lot of different robotics companies, specifically in material handling, automation space, and specific to robotics, there’s been a lot of talk about interoperability and creating a little bit more standardization. Are you involved in any work in that? Tom: Yeah, so we have working groups that do more of the technical or deeper-dive work. We have one on drones and autonomous vehicles. We had one on automated mobile robots, so think of the robots that run around a warehouse or a factory floor. There, we’re working on an interoperability standard. So early on, you would get one vendor in; you’d get one robot, and they would run through your factory. But now, you might have a pallet mover. You might have a floor cleaner. And you have all these different types of systems that are running. How do they interoperate? So you don’t want a robotic picker to go down an aisle when the floor cleaner’s going to be in that aisle because they’ll run into each other, or the forklift. So if there’s a way that all of these different systems can talk to each other and coexist on one location, I think that’s going to be a benefit to all of those suppliers of that type of equipment. Danny: Yeah, absolutely, especially when you’ve got, it seems like a massive amount of new players, new companies coming in every day, solving these unique challenges that are a little bit more niche. But when you look at the grander scale, look at specifically about warehouse or some sort of plant operations. You’ve got a million different players. I know I’m speaking at a lower level here, but from a 30,000-foot view, that’s very difficult to be able to have all of– are you going to have 30 different systems? That’s certainly a big challenge. From your perspective, what are some of the biggest issues and the challenges that you’re seeing in the industry over the next, right now or over the next five years? Tom: So I think in the warehouse and factory side, we talk a little bit about this, the number of disparate systems that are going to be out there and how to get them to interoperate. That’s an important part, and it’s more just the systems talking to each other, but also, just think about all the infrastructure. They’re going to need to be on the same network. Charging stations is a great example. Are there going to be multiple charging stations? Can everybody use the same charging station? Right now, everybody’s got their own, and they’re all different types, too. So I think there’s a lot that is going to need to be worked out as these systems– as you want to deploy them in large numbers in these different operations. Danny: Yeah, that makes— Tom: I don’t think there’s going to be one robot. There’s not going to be a one-solution-that-fits-all type of thing. You may look at a factory, and they’re moving a 6,000-pound pallet. And yet, they’re putting a couple of pound items on a shelf. The same robots aren’t going to do those two different tasks. Danny: Right, right. Yeah, certainly big challenges ahead, that’s for sure. What are some of the great opportunities? I guess we can flip it a little bit. It’s a challenge; what are the big opportunities that you’re seeing? Tom: I think really, two areas that we’re really excited about is the ability to pick. We talk about this; it’s such a challenge. There’s still human pickers in most of these warehouses and still on a lot of the manufacturing lines of things that humans can do. But of things that robots can do, the ability to have those two work together, almost side by side, I think is a great opportunity as that technology develops. So we talk about collaborative robots. They’ve been around for a number of years now. But their deployment is really starting to pick up as people figure out how these two types of things can work together, how humans can work right next to these robots. There’s great systems by companies like Veo and others that are making vision and other models that understand how the robot’s going to move to make sure that they don’t interfere with what the human’s going to do. And the human can operate in that same space. When you look back 10, 20 years ago, you saw factory automation caged in. So if you look at a traditional factory line, you’d see all the robots in cages. That’s going to go away. That’s slowly going away, and I think it’s going to continue on that pace. Then, we’re going to see these robots doing all sorts of different tasks in a very flexible way. Danny: Yeah, I know that’s certainly a big challenge. You go to any of these large shows like a ProMat or a MODEX, and you’re seeing all the innovation and all the things that are happening. I remember, we had a client; they’re wholesale distributors in wine and liquor and beer. And you go into their distribution facility, and it’s definitely a very unique challenge. I remember specifically asking them, hey, what automation are you guys looking at to scale? I know it’s a big challenge for them. I was like, well, everything’s so varied, and now you’re not talking about moving a 6,000-pound piece and, then, something very small. It’s largely going to be somewhat within the same weight category-ish. But you’ve got, they’re very fragile, and the different shapes. It’s certainly, these are challenges that someone’s going to solve. Tom: Right, and you highlight another, we talked about opportunity. It’s certainly the end effector gripper, coming up with a diverse set of grippers that can pick up the things that you talked about. And there’s interesting work going on with the software and all those different things that can conform around different products. But the human has a great ability. If you put an egg and a bowling ball next to each other, we could easily pick those up, from one to the other, and switch back and forth. To get a robot to do that’s still pretty challenging. It’ll crush the egg if it has the ability to pick up the bowling ball. I think that’s an area that we’ll see some neat development. Danny: Yeah, excellent. Well, listen Tom, I think you guys are doing some amazing work. There’s a lot, it sounds like there’s some great innovations and some great things going on over there. So for those who would like to learn more about you, what’s the web address? Tom: So it’s www.massrobotics.org. Danny: Massrobotics.org, okay, great. So everyone can come check you guys out over there. Tom, thank you so much for your time today and letting us pick your brain a little bit. Tom: No problem. Thanks for having me. Danny: Alright, thanks. Well, there you go; that wraps up today’s IndustrialSage Executive Series interview with Tom Ryden who is the executive director of Mass Robotics. You can go check them out, massrobotics.org. So hey, listen, if you like these episodes, make sure that you are on our email list. You can go to IndustrialSage.com, and you can subscribe because we have a lot of great content like this. We have the Executive Series. We also have the Bright Ideas Series by Acuity Brands. We have manufacturing news; we’ve got webinars and all kinds of content coming out that you don’t want to miss. So thank you for watching or listening. I’m Danny Gonzales, and I’ll be back next week with another episode on IndustrialSage.   hbspt.cta.load(192657, 'ee6f69de-cfd0-4b78-8310-8bdf983bdcc9', {});   Thanks for reading. Don’t forget to subscribe to our weekly newsletter to get every new episode, blog article, and content offer sent directly to your inbox. You can also subscribe wherever you download podcasts so you can listen on the go! Sponsored by Optimum Productions
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