The complex and swiftly changing field of robotics needs flexible pros
As manufacturing becomes more automated, the demand for workers with this unique skill set will continue to grow” – Steve Burry, Michelin
“The Army needs professionals with varied skills and the ability to work across disciplines” – Dr Jon Bornstein, ARL
By Sue Poremba
General Motors is usually associated with cars and trucks, but GM has been a major player in the robotics industry since 1961. A collaboration between inventor George Devol and engineer and physicist Joseph Engelberger resulted in the Unimate, the first industrial robot, which was used in a GM production facility.
The arrival of Unimate is generally regarded as the birth of the robot industry. Since that time, GM’s use of robotics has expanded into every area of manufacturing. Today GM has over 25,000 robots in its worldwide fleet.
Dana Komin is director of manufacturing engineering for General Motors. “Robotics is a growing field where there is a need for talented engineers who want to bring their enthusiasm and innovation into the U.S. manufacturing business,” she observes.
GM is not alone. The Robotics Industries Association estimates that 225,000 robots are in use by U.S. factories. This number is growing swiftly; the robotics market is strong, and companies across many industries continue to acquire robots for use in their factories. And many observers believe that only 10 percent of companies that could use robots have them in place, meaning there is much room for growth.
According to an article at the Education Portal (education-portal.com), robotics engineers and engineering jobs that involve robotics are a hot commodity. Using U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, the portal’s authors project a 6 percent increase in employment between 2008 and 2018 for techies with robotics skills.
Robotics engineer Atif Qureshi turns sci-fi fascination into a NASA career
Around the world, religion and science are often caught in an ideological clash. For Atif Qureshi, that clash set him on his career path.
“I grew up in Islamabad, Pakistan, in a powerfully religious culture. After I left Pakistan, I came to value the pursuit of objective truth embodied in the study of science,” he says. “I’ve always been a huge fan of science fiction, and I dreamed of working at NASA. I wanted to contribute in some small way to our expansion beyond the Earth.”
Blasting off to his dream job
He started at NASA after he graduated with an MS in engineering design from the University of Texas (Austin, TX) in 2006. “I got my first job after my masters at United Space Alliance, as part of the robotics operations group at Johnson Space Center (JSC),” he says. “There I learned the operation and inner workings of the International Space Station (ISS) robotic servicing system. At Johnson, I was always looking for ways to expand the envelope of robotic capability on the ISS, and this led to my involvement with the Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM). I was able to visit NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC, Greenbelt, MD) as a member of the JSC mission team and got a glimpse of some of the exciting work being done in the robotics lab. I was hooked then and I’m still here.”
“GSFC is a global leader in earth science, astrophysics, heliophysics and planetary science,” says Ron Brade, director of its office of human capital. “Robotics is a part of what we do.”
Qureshi works as a robotics engineer in the robotics development and test group, which is part of the satellite servicing capabilities office at GSFC. “Basically, my job is to provide advice to the design team during the development of robotic systems and robotically compatible systems, and to evaluate the prototypes they develop. The idea is to bring the perspective of an operator to the engineering process in order to produce a more usable final product.”
Qureshi is working on the RRM project, which is entering its second phase. The project, which takes place on the International Space Station, aims to demonstrate the viability of on-orbit repair and refueling techniques.
In his spare time Qureshi plays guitar. “I had a wonderful blues/folk collaboration with a couple of NASA work buddies back in Houston, and now I’m playing in a moderately successful punk band with some high school friends from Pakistan.”
Vanessa Buckmaster works at all stages of development at DRS Technologies
Vanessa Buckmaster attended Evangel University (Springfield, MO), where she graduated in 2004 with a BS in biology and a minor in math. “Evangel was a small college, and at the time they did not have an engineering program,” she explains. “Shortly after graduation, I got really interested in the engineering field. I began working toward a second bachelors degree but then decided it would be more beneficial to work toward a masters.” She got her MSME from the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville, AR) in 2009.
After graduating, Buckmaster took her first professional job with defense contractor DRS Technologies in St. Louis, MO, where she is a mechanical engineer. “At DRS, we focus on defense technology, but when we see business ventures where we can use our knowledge and experience, we seize the opportunity. Robotics is one of those business ventures,” she says.
Her job is to design components to allow for the integration of more advanced technologies onto military platforms. “I have also had the opportunity to assist our robotics program. My duties there are very similar except we are mounting to smaller platforms,” she explains.
Buckmaster works on several different programs within DRS. “I really enjoy it because I get to work a variety of tasks in different stages of development. I have had the privilege of working in programs at the research and development, proposal, production, and legacy stages. This kind of exposure gives me great experience because the tasks involved with each stage are very different.”
Over the past two years, her job has required her to investigate problems, research new technology, design new components, and install products onto vehicle platforms. “It is fun to see my designs come to life, and it feels good to know I am making a difference in the lives of our soldiers,” she says. “My goals for the future are to take on more challenging tasks that force me to do and learn new things.”
Raimundo Onetto does advanced analytics at GE Power & Water
Raimundo Onetto was born and raised in Santiago, Chile. He moved to the United States when he was eighteen to attend college at Florida International University (Miami, FL). He graduated in 2010 with a BSME and a professional certificate in robotics engineering. After graduation, he enrolled in GE Energy’s Edison Engineering Development Program, and was part of the program’s first software track cohort. “I finished the program this year, but it is continuing to pay for my masters in computer science at North Carolina State University,” he says.
Onetto was familiar with robotics before he entered school, but his education showed him what robotics and mechatronics actually involve. He took his college’s certification program on the core concepts of robotics: modeling and control of robots, mechatronics, signal processing and sensors.
But Onetto’s first job out of college wasn’t in robotics. “My first real job was as an IT technician, not really related to robotics. But I gained skills in the cable management, connection and organizational areas,” he says. “These skills are definitely desirable when building robots and wiring sensors to microcontrollers to make small components. I always carried around boxes with microcontrollers, sensors, wires, gages, programmers and all sort of gizmos.
“After four different software rotations within GE Energy, I learned that robotics is not only about what I like to call ‘robo-sapiens,’ the human-looking robots. Every hardware piece on the market with some kind of automatic system can be thought of as a robot. It can be as simple as your icemaker, or as complex as a jet engine.”
Today, Onetto is part of a newly formed advanced analytics team at GE Power & Water, a unit of GE Energy. He’s based in Atlanta, GA. “We analyze power generation systems within GE Energy including gas turbines, steam turbines, wind turbines, oil and gas equipment, and solar farms. I like to think of these systems as giant power-generating robots,” he explains. “A gas turbine can have more than 500 different signals coming in real time to a controller. These are processed at a high sampling frequency and decisions are made in quarters of seconds to control and actuate the equipment. Simple tasks, such as accelerating a gas turbine, encompass many robotic systems that control the inlet air, amount of gas injected, exhaust temperatures and rotational speed of the generator. We analyze data from different areas and come up with algorithms and solutions to make things smarter.”
Onetto’s efforts are part of GE’s initiative to build an “industrial Internet” where sensors and analytics will drive efficiency and value for a variety of industrial systems. Onetto’s team works on many quick projects where new sensors are prototyped and a system’s behavior is understood by analyzing sensor data. “We are currently testing the latest generations of gas turbines and acquiring gigabytes of data per test,” he says. “The sensors can tell you every detail about the gas turbine’s operation and health. We analyze this information and feed it back to the teams in the design functions for them to use the findings to improve actuators or mechanisms. We try to follow a similar consulting route across different GE power-generation technologies.”
He enjoys the fact that no matter what he’s working on, data, sensors and controls will always be present. “This allows you to be knowledgeable in many different areas while still allowing you to keep the technical depth of a data scientist/analyst or a system architect,” he says. “A technical background in robotics can be applied basically anywhere where there is hardware or software interaction. If you enjoy robotics you’ll most definitely enjoy these systems.”
Harris Edge pioneers unmanned systems research at Army Research Lab
Harris Edge’s first exposure to engineering and science came from his father, who worked in the field. Edge grew up in Aberdeen, MD, near the Army Research Lab (ARL), so while he studied for his bachelors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Boston, MA), he worked in ARL’s aerodynamics branch during summers and vacations. He received a BS in aeronautical engineering in 1989, then went on to work at ARL full time. He continued his education while working for ARL at Aberdeen Proving Ground, and received his MSME from the University of Delaware (Newark, DE) in 1995.
“I was first exposed to computer simulation on high-performance computers while working in the aerodynamics branch and specializing in computational fluid dynamics,” he says. “I grew to appreciate other aspects of simulation, and moved toward more general forms when I transitioned to the Weapons Analysis Branch. A component of the Weapons Analysis Branch was ARL robotics research, which traditionally had a ground-based focus. But shortly after I joined, there was a decision to start an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) program. This coincided with the growth of UAV use in military operations after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Because of my experience in simulation and ballistic range programs, I was chosen to start the UAV research for the Weapons Analysis Branch.”
Edge is a mechanical engineer at ARL, and serves as team leader of the advanced mobility and manipulation team, and technical lead in those areas for ARL’s Autonomous Systems Enterprise.
“The advanced mobility and manipulation team is a small team that performs basic research for air and ground unmanned systems. Some of the team’s research is done together with unmanned systems research collaborative technology alliances (CTAs). My team leader duties include planning and performing research, looking for funding, and administrative and research project oversight,” he explains. “My duties as ARL technical lead include planning and organizing unmanned systems research in ARL and the CTAs. I report directly to the head of the ARL Autonomous Systems Enterprise. I also interface with and monitor other DoD robotics programs to ensure that ARL unmanned systems research does not duplicate their efforts. Today there is more communication among groups performing unmanned systems research and there are efforts to foster collaboration.”
Edge is also a contracting officer representative for a small business innovation research project to develop lightweight electric and magnetic sensors for small UAVs. “Developing sensors for small UAVs will enable ARL to develop smart behaviors and controls to allow capabilities such as ‘sense and avoid’ of power lines and manned aircraft, and geolocating enemy sources of power generation. This research parallels our efforts to develop technologies for future UAVs that allow precision control and extended flight time,” he says.
His duties at work keep him so busy that his free time is minimal, and much of his spare time is spent reading to keep up with the latest research on UAVs. “Unmanned systems research is a rapidly evolving area. I feel privileged to be involved in this relatively early stage of development of autonomous systems for military applications,” he says.
ARL seeks diverse candidates for robotics innovation leadership
The Robotics Collaborative Technology Alliance (RCTA), a $60 million five-year effort started in 2010, is part of the ARL’s Autonomous Systems Enterprise, which combines ARL’s internal research efforts with external research. The alliance provides key perception, control, and human-robot interface technology for the Army’s future unmanned vehicle programs.
“Robotics is a rapidly growing field. The Army needs flexible professionals with varied skills and the ability to work across disciplines. These different backgrounds come together to make us collectively a stronger team,” says Dr Jon Bornstein, chief of the autonomous systems division within ARL’s vehicle technology directorate and manager of the RCTA.
“Disciplines in high demand at the research lab include computer science, electronics, physics, and even behavioral sciences that can help us develop future systems that ‘team’ with soldiers in more of a peer-to-peer relationship than is currently possible,” he says. “To accomplish this goal, Army Research Lab scientists and engineers are partnering with other researchers from academia and industry.
People pursuing careers in robotics with ARL could come from backgrounds in hardware, software, actuation, mechanical engineering, and more, according to Bornstein. Teamwork is another welcome and important skill in the defense industry.
Jennifer Foster leads an all-male weld shop team at Hyundai
Nothing in Jennifer Foster’s background should have led to her career at Hyundai (Montgomery, AL). She attended the University of South Alabama (Mobile, AL) as a history major with a minor in criminal justice. “I was actually registering at Troy University in Nursing School when a Hyundai recruiter asked me to fill out her application to make her quota, and I’ve been here ever since,” she smiles.
Because her background isn’t in engineering or mechanics, Foster had to start at the bottom. She worked in moving parts running a nut weld machine and moved up through the ranks until she came to her current position as the team leader of body build/body re-spot at Hyundai. She assists and supervises a team of eight to verify welds and provide communication between management to the team. “My area has 104 welding robots as well as material handler robots. I supervise the changing of their caps and relay any issues that occur on the line to management,” she explains.
She is the lone female team leader in the weld shop. “I’ve had to adjust my tone when I talk because I can come across as being brash, but I see it as getting results. You expect the results you know your line is capable of giving you, and so should your team,” she says.
Harry Skipper troubleshoots robots at Michelin
Harry Skipper is an engineer in the Lexington, SC location of Michelin, whose North American headquarters are in Greenville, SC. Even though he works in robotics, “I don’t feel at all like a robot myself,” he says with a smile. “This job is not repetitive, and there is always something new to learn.”
Skipper was born and raised in Columbia, SC, and always liked learning how things worked. This curiosity led him to Midlands Technical College (MTC, Columbia, SC) where he received an associates degree in electronics engineering technology in 2007.
“I made my way to Michelin through the tech scholar program while I was at MTC,” Skipper explains. “As a tech scholar I got a chance to work with machines here at US5, the Lexington passenger and light truck plant. I felt that working here would be a good change of pace and a good career path. When I got done with school I decided to join Michelin full time.”
He is a troubleshooter at US5, where his duties include maintaining the reliability of the machines on his production line. “All of the machines here are some sort of robot, and some are more complex than others. I work with them every day,” he says.
“One challenge I face is finding a way to learn more about the machines and how to maintain them,” Skipper continues. “I’ve been here long enough to learn a good bit about our machinery but I don’t know everything. For a troubleshooter, the only time to learn how to repair some of our robots is when one actually breaks down.”
Outside work, Skipper tries to relax as much as possible by fishing and riding his motorcycle “as much as my wife will let me,” he chuckles. At work, he hopes to eventually become one of his shop’s “go-to” guys. “I hope to learn a lot more so that I can do more to help the newer people in the shop instead of having to send them to someone else.”
Diversity at Michelin
“Today’s advanced manufacturing world is much more challenging than twenty years ago,” says Steve Burry, HR corporate project manager of Michelin North America. “We need a highly skilled, diverse workforce with teamwork skills. Tires are a complex product and finding people with the right skill set to work on our machines and robots is becoming more difficult. This is a very rewarding career with a really good compensation package.
“Advanced manufacturing is growing in the U.S., which is increasing demand for people with mechanical skills and robotics experience to operate and maintain our equipment. As manufacturing becomes more automated, the demand for workers with this unique skill set will continue to grow. We must market and brand these careers with today’s reality of manufacturing to attract talented students from all backgrounds to create our workforce of the future.”
Jennifer Flees assigns production people, and robots, at GM
Like Harry Skipper and Jennifer Foster, Jennifer Flees works in robotics in the automotive industry. She is a senior manufacturing project engineer at General Motors (Detroit, MI).
She earned two associates degrees in CAD and vehicle body design before getting her BSEE from Oakland University (Rochester, MI). She also attended General Motors University for tool and die. “I sold antiques on eBay to get through college,” she says.
The car industry was in her blood. “I’m a fourth-generation General Motors engineer,” she says proudly, following in the footsteps of her great-grandfather, grandfather, and father. “It’s always been something I wanted to do. My two brothers both work with cars, too, but neither one of them went into engineering.”
She was first hired into GM’s tool and die operation, and from there she moved to the stamping side of vehicle manufacturing, which eventually led her into robotics.
Filling in the workplace gaps
“When I started out at Pontiac stamping, I was maintenance supervisor, and that didn’t directly involve robots,” she says. As the plant’s demands and staffing changed over time, Flees learned to program the robots that were used on her shift, and built her skills on the job.
In her current position, she helps decide what robots are used in the production line. “When GM comes up with a new vehicle, we have to decide what size robots, what style of robots, and what applications are needed for manufacturing,” she says. She works on the floor with everyone else from her team, programming robots, but also manages.
“This isn’t what I set out to do when I went into a degree program in electrical engineering,” she admits, “but I’m glad it turned out the way it did.”
DIVERSITY-MINDED COMPANIES & ORGANIZATIONS WORKING IN ROBOTICS
Check websites for current listings.
|Company and location
|Army Research Laboratory (Adelphi, MD)
|Research and development for military
|DRS Technologies (Arlington, VA)
|Integrated products, services and support to military forces, intelligence agencies and prime contractors
|General Electric Power & Water
|Power and water energy technologies
|General Motors Corporation (Detroit, MI)
|Harris Corporation (Melbourne, FL)
|Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama
|Michelin North America (Greenville, SC)
|Microsoft Corporation (Redmond, WA)
|National Aeronautic & Space Administration
(NASA, Washington, DC) www.nasa.gov
|Space research and operations
Back to Top