(Mass)ive Robotics Presence Fuels Innovations

Oct. 12, 2021
Constantly growing and nurturing a base of progressive start-ups keeps Massachusetts in the mix as a leader in robotics and AI.

What robotics and AI/ML based offerings are capable of accomplishing is nothing sort of phenomenal. Unfortunately, matching the potential with actual, real-world applications can be more challenging than it needs to be.

“Hype becomes a big challenge,” says Daniel Theobald, chief innovation officer of Vecna Robotics. “When people have unrealistic expectations, and a robotic solution still provides tremendous value, the overhyped expectations still result in disappointment. This often happens with startups, in part because they don't necessarily realize how hard the problems are that they're trying to solve.”

Unfortunately, the scenario damages the industry, “simply because it is so hard, and it's simultaneously such an area of excitement and hype right now,” he says. “It creates churn. Even though there are great solutions out there that work, that are reliable, that scale, they may have had an experience with a smaller startup trying to make the leap but just didn't quite make it.”

The key to avoiding hype, explains Theobald, starts with educating the industry as a whole -- customers, suppliers and startups. “We're talking about robots capable of doing more than the exact same thing every time. Robots capable of changing task based on sensor input,” he says. 

“It's a matter of making sure people understand the value proposition has been proven, that there is an ambiguous value, and it's just going to take time to learn to adopt them. It takes time to learn how to deploy this type of new technology. There's a learning process, change management process, staff implications and workflow implications. Those organizations that can be convinced to start the process now are going to have a massive advantage over those that don't.”

Enter Mass Robotics

Mass Robotics was founded as part of the solution with a goal of addressing some of the challenges, explains Theobald. “A lot of the challenges companies would have are oftentimes not well aligned with the problems people coming out of universities want to solve,” he says. “Our goal has been to create a productive conversation between technologists and companies trying to address problems. It's made significant headway.”

Mass Robotics is a co working space, which helps young robotic startups get on the road, helping to reduce obstacles and allowing them to focus more on their core value propositions, explains Theobald. Currently, Mass Robotics has over 350 innovative companies in its ecosystem including over 60 residents currently in the co-working space.

Mass Robotics has been working to help bridge the gap for these companies, helping them understand the challenges in the real world and connect them with companies to have real proof points of what their solutions need to do to be successful. “Those engagements feed success back into the industry,” he says.

The group has three goals:

  • Facilitating the conversation between robotic startups and companies looking for solutions.
  • Reducing obstacles to adoption of robotic technology through creating practical industry standards.
  • Helping to grow the next generation of STEM talent.

For robotics to thrive, it is crucial companies choose the right applications from the start. “We've seen this in the self-driving car industry, for example. In many ways, that segment of robotics chose one of the hardest problems out there to solve first,” he says. “There are all these other applications where robots can provide tremendous, unambiguous value without all of the safety and regulatory hurdles. Getting the industry to focus on those unambiguous wins versus reaching too far into the future, can be important as well.”

Call for help

“The biggest ongoing obstacle to growth of robotics is the shortage of talent, which is one of the reasons why Boston is a significant leader in this space with its access to the right kind of talent for robotics, AI and connected devices,” says Theobald. “Even so, there's a massive shortage of talent, everywhere. Robotics will touch every aspect of our physical economy, and we are likely going to continue to struggle, and even fall behind our international competitors, if we don't start to lean in on this problem a bit more.”

About the Author

Peter Fretty | Technology Editor

As a highly experienced journalist, Peter Fretty regularly covers advances in manufacturing, information technology, and software. He has written thousands of feature articles, cover stories, and white papers for an assortment of trade journals, business publications, and consumer magazines.

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