Image courtesy of CMU.

Carnegie Mellon University and the Department of Defense are working to make Pittsburgh the center of a new era of robotics in manufacturing.

The Department of Defense chose American Robotics, a CMU nonprofit with more than 220 partnerships, to launch the Advanced Robotics Manufacturing (ARM) Institute in Pittsburgh. The new venture will join 13 similar institutes as part of the Manufacturing USA network, a program of private and public investors devoted to revitalizing American manufacturing through the development and deployment of new technology.

As part of the deal, the ARM institute will receive $80 million from the Department of Defense over five years, plus an additional $173 million from partner organizations.

CMU Robotics Institute professor Howard Choset was one of several university faculty and officials who developed the proposal that secured the ARM Institute. He describes the four-pronged mission of the institute as working to empower American workers to compete with low-wage workers abroad; to create and sustain new jobs to secure US national prosperity; to lower the barriers for companies of all sizes to adopt robotics technologies; and to assert US leadership in advanced manufacturing.

The goal of this deal is to revitalize manufacturing in the US. Why would the Department of Defense invest in something like this?

Choset: The Department of Defense relies on a healthy manufacturing base. That’s why we were able to strike back in World War II after the Japanese decimated our fleet in Pearl Harbor. We were able to build planes really fast. The ability to manufacture is so important for the strength of the military and a strong economy.

The military is reaching a point where they have to embrace automation in order to be cost effective. There are only so many tax dollars that can go into building planes, for example. Robotics will both customize the planes as well as reduce the cost to make them.

I believe the industries we’re going to impact the most are automotive, aerospace, electronics and textiles.

There’s concern that automation will eliminate the need for human manufacturing workers. Do you think this fear is unfounded?

Choset: It’s not unfounded, but it’s also not correct. Automation and innovation always create jobs. Automation will also end jobs. However, the creation and addition of jobs is so much bigger that as a society we accept it.

The American worker wants to be as effective as possible. He wants tools. And to them, a robot is just another tool. When I went around the country writing this proposal, we had nine industry days where we went to different parts of the country to ask companies what they want. And they all saidand this is their quote, not mineto “automate or evaporate.” The reality is if you become more productive, you’re going to attract more business.

Our peers in Europe and China are quickly embracing robots. I don’t think the question anymore is, do robots create jobs or not create jobs? I think we should be asking ourselves how robots can create the most jobs.

The institute seems geared toward making robots more accessible to companies. How would you accomplish that?

Choset: We’re going to make robots more versatile. Right now, robots tend to be singularly purposed. They can only do one thing. What we want to do is make robots more adaptable and flexible so they can do a variety of tasks. We want to be able to quickly purpose or re-purpose a robot as demand changes. We want to promote collaborative robotics, where robots and people work together.

When we went around the country, small companies [firms with 500 or fewer employees] said they want to embrace robots. Cost was an issue, but the other issue is they didn’t know what robot to embrace. If you’re a large company, you can hire a consultant to figure it out. At a small company, you can’t do that. We want to be that first line of defense where a small company can come to us and ask questions. But the real thing we’re going to do is provide educational experiences for small companies so they know what robots to ask for.

What kind of impact do you think the ARM institute will have on the region?

Choset: The very fact that the ARM Institute will be housed here in Pittsburgh will attract other industrial research to this area. I think once we form this center of excellence, other companies throughout the country are going to want to set up shop here near the Institute, much in the same way other companies have come here and set up shop near CMU.

Amanda Waltz

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated...