Are R2D2 and C3PO Moving to A City Near You?

A new “robotics cluster” emerges as the state rushes to diversify its manufacturing base.

In 1941 legendary writer Isaac Asimov coined the word “robotics” accidently. He was writing a science fiction short story and created the word to describe the science of making and programming robots by adding the suffix “ics” -“ as in linguistics or mechanics.

The robots in Asimov’s stories have root-level programming that requires them to follow what he called the Three Laws of Robotics:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Today’s robots do everything from painting a car body to removing a blockage in your intestine to disarming a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. Oh, and they can now violate the First Law.

They can also help rescue a state’s manufacturing base.

Proof of that was offered recently at a conference convened by the U.S. Department of Defense, Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., Automation Alley in Troy, Mich.,the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, the Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center, and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

SBA Administrator Karen Gordon Mills speaking enthusiastically before a sold-out Robotics Cluster conference at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich.

Keynote speaker Karen Gordon Mills, Administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, explained how the cluster concept works.
When the Brunswick Naval Air Station went on the base closure list, Mills got a call from the Governor of Maine, where she and her husband, the president of Bowdoin College, live. “‘You know how to grow businesses,'” she recalled the governor saying. “‘You better find some’ to take the place of where this base was. So we put together a cluster with the boat-builders of Maine, and the University of Maine advanced composite center.”

Boat-building in Maine has been a business for some 400 years. “We’re not making them out of wood any more -“ we’re making them out of composites” Mills explained. “We make the lightest and fastest boats in the world -“ so the first contract we got was for Navy SEAL boats.” The previously independent boat builders of Maine got the idea. “They clustered together,” Mills continued, “because, after all, their traditional business was down and they had to begin to look at alternative markets. We got 860 small companies in the boat building, marine and composite trades to cluster around the former base. We were able to invest in the cluster, got a federal workforce grant, got the community colleges involved, and got research money for the University,” she said.

Once the cluster was organized, Mills created a brand. “We got our boat builders to stand up together as Maine-built Boats and we got them talking about our 400-year history. We got the U.S. State Department behind us and we went to Shanghai and we sold boats. We had the brand, we had the technology, and we had small business owners working together and We Sold Boats,” she effectively capitalized the last three words in her enthusiasm.

Selling Maine-built boats in China shows that small businesses can cluster together and market not only competitively, but globally.

“In Maine,” Mills continued “we looked around and said if we replicate the success of our boat building cluster six or seven times -“ we’re done. We will have rebuilt the economy.” Mills went on to say that her next cluster success involved. “The food makers of Maine, 110 of them. We have potatoes, we have lobsters, we have blueberries, we have all kinds of specialty foods. They’re now a cluster and the second most powerful one in the state.”

The Roomba by iRobot.

While robots for automotive use have been a part of the manufacturing scene for years, the defense robotics business has been developing quietly. A number of robotics vendors were in attendance -“ both attending and exhibiting at the conference. One name in particular would be familiar to most of the civilian population: iRobot, the maker of a variety of domestic robots that can clean floors and gutters, even swimming pools.

It’s the other side of iRobot that was present at the Robotics Cluster conference: the defense side. The basis of the iRobot line is a tracked robot platform called the PacBot. The PacBot can be configured for homeland first responders to search for hazardous chemicals or explosive devices. It can be used by the armed forces (“warfighters” in defense-speak) to do everything from remote surveillance in an urban environment to serving as a weapons platform.

An iRobot PackBot disposing of an unexploded bomb.

The conference began as a thought back in February and was formally announced only six weeks before it occurred. John Bedz, who handles the defense sector for tech consortium at Automation Alley explains, “We had held a luncheon at the Alley for the local chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and had invited Cliff Hudson of the SBA to speak. At that luncheon we talked to him about possible opportunities for Washington to help the local robotics industry. The SBA called a couple of months ago and suggested we have a conference in July -“ and I thought they meant July of 2010, but they meant this July. So, in six weeks, we pulled it off. The fact that it came together shows that there is a strong base of support here in Michigan.”

An iRobot PackBot searching for a potential car bomb.

In an exclusive interview with SBA Administrator Mills, Corp! asked her to amplify on the role of her agency in working with sector clusters and the hundreds of independent small businesses that comprise them.

“To begin with,” Mills said, “we’ve been able to leverage our portion of the Recovery Act funds so that $700 billion is going out to small business. The loan activity of our bank partners in Michigan alone is up 55 percent over what it was before October -“ when most banks just stopped lending, period.

“We have several departments and agencies working together for you,” Mills pointed out “Treasury, Commerce, the SBA -“ we call it ‘linked, leveraged and aligned.’ We’re focused on partnering with the private sector and the state and local governments in a way that hasn’t happened in the past. We know that 70 percent of the jobs in this country are created by small businesses. Half of the people in this country own, or work for small businesses.”

Mills said that the Administration recognizes that Michigan’s manufacturing base is worth preserving, in different forms. “The talent in this area needs to look at transformative opportunities,” she explained. “There actually are quite a few because the asset base in this state is extensive. The organization of the state’s economic development focus, the cluster activities that have begun have been very well done. So there’s a foundation, and in our partnering with various groups throughout the state we want to make these clusters, these new activities successful.”

Mills pointed out that the SBA has a number of roles to play that can benefit small business in Michigan. “We provide capital, through our loan guarantee programs. We provide counseling through our small business development centers, particularly our technology centers. For example, SCORE is our corps of retired executives who are counseling small business owners. There are 350 chapters, with 11,000 counselors. And, if you don’t have a counselor who knows about your company’s particular issues, you can get online and get connected to somebody in robotics, for instance. We basically work with companies to help them get to the next level.”

In her formal presentation to the conference Mills had touched on the federal contracting program. We asked her to amplify on it. “We provide opportunities for growth through our government contracting process,” she responded. “Twenty-three percent of all federal contracts must go to small businesses. There’s a whole set of programs where we help small business -“ particularly socially and economically disadvantaged small businesses -“ grow and get access to opportunities. We train all of the federal procurement agents how to look for small businesses. It’s not easy to know how to contract with a small business. We help them get better at that.”

Recalling that Corp! had recently published an article about SBA funding sources, Mills wanted to provide some updates. “We’ve been able to provide increased amounts for the surety bonds small contractors need to go after Recovery Act activities and that’s been helping a lot of contractors get business. The 504 loan program refinancing capability is now in place. If you have business that owns a commercial building and you want to expand, but you have a loan on your existing plant or equipment you can refinance that into a 504 loan. In the past if you had an existing debt you couldn’t take that and put it as part of the package and there are no fees.”

Returning to her main reason for attending the Robotics Cluster conference, Mills said “This issue about clusters is very powerful. One of the things that we’ve found is that it’s best if there’s a bottom-up movement -“ as you saw today. When we announced this program we were over-subscribed by businesses who wanted to attend. We need to have businesses provide the energy to form a cluster. Then, when business is at the table, you can add technology, research and development from the university, you can add workforce training from the workforce boards and community colleges, you can add capital from the SBA and others. The federal government is going to be a partner to these clusters and that’s a very important evolution and transformation.”

As her press secretary tugged at her sleeve, Mills said, “Michigan has a lot of assets and great branding. That Michigan advertising campaign, for instance, was very successful and has had a great resonance. There’s a great image about all kinds of things about Michigan -“ it’s a beautiful place, it’s a vacation place -“ but it’s also about technology. That’s what everybody, including the Department of Defense, knows. The capability is here to do something like advanced robotics. The great universities that you have here are second to none. You have lots of assets and lots of brands and they will emerge.”