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This Robotics Company Could Revolutionize Advanced Manufacturing


Kelsey Davis, Manager, Digital Media, Consumer Technology Association (CTA)

Industries like the auto industry have been transformed by automation and robotics, improving quality, efficiency and safety. But some industries and products need a softer touch. That’s where Soft Robotics comes in.

 

Soft Robotics has created a robotics solution for industries like food and beverage, ecommerce and advanced manufacturing that require the handling capabilities of a human hand. We had a chance to speak with Carl Vause, CEO of Soft Robotics, about the company and its products.

Tell us a little about your background and how your career path brought you to Soft Robotics.

I am the CEO for Soft Robotics, a company that is revolutionizing robotics with soft robotic gripping systems that can grasp and manipulate items with the same dexterity as the human hand. An electrical engineer by training, I was astonished when I was exposed to a Harvard University-based technology that used biology-inspired material science to solve one of the greatest challenges in robotics. 

With a background as a senior executive in medical device and manufacturing companies, I had been exposed to the importance of designing machines that could safely and dexterously perform medical procedures and interact with humans. Traditional robots that are built with rigid components and hard linkages just can’t operate in environments where delicate manipulation and robot-human collaboration are required.

Prior to Soft Robotics, I served as Vice President of Marketing at OmniGuide Surgical, and before that, as the Global Franchise Leader for the Joint Repair business at Smith & Nephew. I also served as Manager of Strategic Planning at 3M and as Division Operations Process Manager at Nestle Waters North America. I began my career a Naval Flight Officer in the United States Navy, retiring from the Naval Reserve in 2013.

I was introduced to the soft robotics platform while it was being advanced through a collaboration between Harvard University and DARPA. The program was centered around surgery and biomedical applications. After reviewing the technology and its capabilities, I saw a major unmet need and opportunity in industrial automation. If the robot could safely manipulate and transport organs and soft tissue without damage, it could easily grasp delicate and variable products like fresh produce and consumer goods. In 2013 Soft Robotics was born.

Today, we have successfully translated this technology into a product and a company that, for the first time, is able to unlock automation for industries like food and beverage, advanced manufacturing, and e-commerce and logistics.

How does Soft Robotics’ technology work? What can the technology be used for?

Most robotic solutions today are based on hard linkages, which make it difficult to pick up soft and variable objects like fresh produce or interact safely with humans. Traditional robotic manufacturers have attempted to mimic the human hand with rigid linkages, sensors and sophisticated vision systems. Our novel approach solves this problem through material science, not through higher levels of cost and complexity. 

The computational power of the Soft Robotics system is built into the gripper itself, a proprietary blend of materials with microfluidic channels that, when actuated, mimic the soft tissue of the human hand. The design for Soft Robotics technology was inspired by the octopus, a paradigm shift from traditional robotics engineers who are working to address this unmet need with hard linkages, sensors and servo motors. This inspiration led to the invention of soft robotic actuators made entirely of polymers that do not require sensors or other electromechanical devices for operation.

With Soft Robotics' technology, the potential for automation to do for several industries what it did for the automotive industry in the 1970s is now a reality. We have witnessed the benefits that robotic automation has brought to structured and repetitive tasks: it can improve quality, productivity, safety and flexibility. But those industries that require the handling and grasping capabilities of the human hand, like food and beverage, advanced manufacturing, and e-commerce, have struggled to implement robotic solutions. And with large manufacturers facing massive turnover and increased pressure to alleviate dangerous work conditions, a solution is essential.

Even the United States government, in its 2016 Roadmap for U.S. Robotics report, cites “dexterous grasping” as nationally imperative to workplace safety, turnover and the increasing demand for food and consumer goods. We believe Soft Robotics is the enabler for the next generation of robotic automation, creating a future workplace that is safer and more enjoyable.

When we combine our soft robotic gripping systems with machine learning, some amazing things can happen. Human-supervised automation of tasks like bin picking, sorting and even harvesting is now a reality. Workers can train robots to pick different kinds of objects so that over time they can move away from high-turnover, dangerous roles and into roles that are safer and more skilled.

Just as the push to build fully autonomous cars has created safer, better consumer vehicles, we believe that the push for robotic automation is creating safer, better jobs. Soft Robotics is humanizing robotics, designing systems that can safely and adaptively interact with human beings.

What advice would you give to entrepreneurs looking to break into the tech industry?

One of my favorite sayings that I have heard over the years (from Tom Ryden, Executive Director, MassRobotics) is, “There is no robotics market; there are problems in markets that can be addressed through robotics.” I completely agree with this statement. Robots and robotic technologies must be solving an unmet need to be adopted. 

Like any product development effort or sales process, you have to identify the pain and provide a solution to that point. Many times we see entrepreneurs trying to force fit a cool technology into the market. To be successful, you have to have product-market fit.

My second piece of advice is around ease of use. Time is a precious commodity to customers in the automation space. If a robotics solution takes too much time to set up or is unable to work with the robotics solution already in place, it’s a non-starter. At Soft Robotics, our aim is for customers to have our system up and running and solving their unique automation problem in under an hour.

What is next for Soft Robotics? 

We believe Soft Robotics is transforming the robotics category, developing technologies that, for the first time ever, can interact with the physical world. Our goal in 2017 was to seed the market with our technology, proving that it stood up to the demands of our customers.

We have successfully launched the technology and have production installations up and running in food and beverage, advanced manufacturing, and e-commerce, with customers from all over the world. Translating a university-based technology into a commercial product that meets the robust demands of industrial customers is no small feat, and we are proud of the work we have done to advance this innovation and make it real in the marketplace.

Only 12 percent of non-automotive industries are automated by robots today because we have been unable to solve for dexterous manipulation of variable product and unstructured tasks. Now that we have a proven solution that is making an impact, our aim is to unlock the power of robotic automation for all markets and to create a safer and better workplace of the future.

You can hear more from Carl Vause at The Future of Robots at Work and Home at CES 2018. Don’t miss out, register today!

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