Kiva Systems

I enjoyed the article “Kiva the Disrupter” in the December 2012 issue of Harvard Business Review, which offered a great example of disruptive innovation in engineering. The company Kiva Systems has fundamentally altered “how consumer orders are picked and packed in warehouses” by making robots bring items from shelves to workers packing orders, instead of forcing workers to walk back and forth through the warehouse aisles. The first-person account of Kiva’s business challenges and ultimate success makes for a riveting read.

Here are a few things that caught my attention:

  • VCs were remarkably unenthusiastic about the hardware part of the business, because it “required a potentially substantial – and, [VCs] thought, risky – investment in engineering and manufacturing hardware.”
  • Implementing an “industry-defying approach” requires many, many calls to very sceptical possible customers arguing “this can’t be done” or protesting that, as the author was told once, “what you’re asking me to undergo is like a heart-lung transplant for my fulfilment center.”
  • It is critical to relieve customers of risk to facilitate adoption. Kiva’s simple system of three fixed-fee invoices guaranteed that customers wouldn’t be charged cost overruns or change-order fees. They also had “right of return for a full refund at any point up to final acceptance.”
  • “Designing, manufacturing and delivering all aspects of the solution” made a significant difference in implementing “a pricing approach that shifted much of the risk to Kiva.” It also allowed Kiva to offer rapid deployment capabilities where the system is installed quickly in any warehouse setting, and can be transferred easily to another warehouse.
  • Kiva covered every system of the customer experience, which enabled continuous improvement: “Because our system is based on software, it will keep getting better with each new release, thanks to improved workflows and algorithms.”

IEEE Spectrum has posted a fascinating demo of Kiva robots at work on YouTube. Kiva was ultimately acquired by Amazon in May 2012 for $775 million.

Baxter the Robot

I recently had the good fortune of attending a talk given by MIT Professor Emeritus Rodney Brooks, who - after a distinguished career as both an academic and an entrepreneur - has now become an entrepreneur full time in order to create and commercialize intelligent robots that adapt to their environments.

Brooks is best known by the general public (at least the part of the general public interested in engineering innovations) for being the co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of iRobot, to which we owe the home vacuum cleaner Roomba as well as autonomous robots used by the military, such as the SUGV, and others. During his talk he regaled us with "tales from the trenches", for instance:

  • His team determined that a potential customer would be able to purchase the Roomba for at most $200 (at the time) without double-checking with her spouse first, and the whole design of the Roomba followed from that price constraint. Brooks said that a European competitor, which had designed a robot vacuum cleaner first, has yet to enter the American market due to the significant difference in price between both products, although the latest, most sophisticated version of the Roomba now sells for $700 (according to the iRobot website).
  • Brooks also mentioned that iRobot had a product superior to its competitor's for use by the military in one of its campaigns abroad (I don't remember if it was Iraq or Afghanistan), but the company realized that the end users - young soldiers - far preferred the other product because of its simpler interface, and as a result they were not taking full advantage of the iRobot product's capabilities. The company therefore redesigned the product interface to make it more similar to that of a video game, and the soldiers were then able to use many more of the product's features.

Brooks is now the chairman and Chief Technology Officer of Rethink Robotics (formerly Heartland Robotics) where his team has created the robot Baxter, which has the potential of profoundly changing manufacturing. This is because the robots currently in use cannot work side by side with humans and are very expensive and inflexible. Programming such robots takes a long time (several weeks, I think, because it needs to be done by the manufacturer) and thus robots currently in use have not been relevant to nimble companies producing small batch orders.

In contrast, Baxter has been built in such a way that it can adapt to its environment and does not need extensive prior training in order to be operated safely. The Rethink Robotics website touts Baxter as "America's first adaptive manufacturing robot", and you can find a detailed list of "why Baxter is different" here.

This new generation of robots has attracted growing attention in the press, both in print and in blog posts. For instance, the New Yorker has a blog post up on "Why making robots is so darn hard". Baxter itself is the focus of an excellent and thorough IEEE Spectrum article: "How Rethink Robotics built its new Baxter robot worker" (subtitle: "Rodney Brooks's new start-up wants to spark a factory revolution with a low-cost, user-friendly robot".)

The company has so far attracted $62 million in funding and Baxter is now about to ship. As the IEEE Spectrum article points out, "Baxter may not be superfast, superstrong, or superprecise like other industrial robots, but it’s smarter. It uses vision to locate and grasp objects, and you can program the robot to perform a new task simply by holding its arms and moving them to the desired position. Baxter will even nod its head to let you know it has understood you."

The article also does a very good job of explaining Baxter's key selling points: safety of use in an environment with human workers nearby (something that I was surprised to learn is not possible with present-day robots), ease of use and cost: "just $22,000", as opposed to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Brooks is confident that Baxter will sell well after the necessary ramp-up period, in particular because he believes outsourcing manufacturing to the country that happens to be cheapest at the moment is not sustainable, since labor costs in that country inevitably increase with time.

The manufacturing jobs that left the US decades ago are not about to return (or at least they won't be performed by humans), but hopefully keeping manufacturing capabilities in the US will promote different types of manufacturing jobs that will foster continued US competitiveness and innovation.

A quick demo posted on YouTube, although not as fascinating or extensive as the video Brooks showed during the talk I attended, offers a good overview of what makes Baxter so different from earlier generations of machines. Expect to see more of Baxter as Rethink Robotics's customers take delivery of their new robot worker.

Herbert Hoover on Engineering

Below is a famous quote of Herbert Hoover about engineers. It is excerpted from an article Hoover wrote for Engineer's Week in 1954, entitled: "Engineering as a Profession."

"The great liability of the engineer compared to men of other professions is that his works are out in the open where all can see them. His acts, step by step, are in hard substance. He cannot bury his mistakes in the grave like the doctors. He cannot argue them into thin air or blame the judge like the lawyers. He cannot, like the architects, cover his failures with trees and vines. He cannot, like the politicians, screen his shortcomings by blaming his opponents and hope the people will forget. The engineer simply cannot deny he did it. If his works do not work, he is damned."

This is exactly why I decided to go into engineering.

Links roundup: innovation, blog shout-out, sustainability in Kansas

In praise of failure. Sir James Dyson, the inventor of the Dual Cyclone bagless vacuum cleaner, which has made him enormously rich, describes in a guest column for Wired his failures-littered path toward successful innovation and talks about the James Dyson Foundation, an engineering charity that provides "hands-on, creative thinking through design and engineering".

Blog shout-out. One of the most enjoyable parts of my job is to meet Lehigh students who already shine on their chosen path, and for whom I cannot imagine anything else than a great future. (Click here for an earlier Lehigh shout-out.) Therefore, it is my pleasure to draw attention to the blog Nighttime maneuvers by a soon-to-be Lehigh graduate, Class of 2011, who also writes the Low End Theories columns in the student newspaper. Such high-quality writing makes me wonder why we put up with so many opinion pieces of dubious quality in the media, while talented twenty-somethings post essays that are infinitely superior on their blog. Anyway, here are a few favorites: "A Sunday in Baltimore", "Fab Five", "A Fame Monster" and "Unfit For a King".

Sustainability starts in Kansas. The May issue of Dwell Magazine has a remarkable essay about the small town of Greensburg, KS, which was devastated by an EF5 tornado four years ago next week. (Click here for the slideshow.) After the tragedy, Greensburg reinvented itself as a "model green town of the future", with a wind turbine that produces enough power for the entire town (and then some) and a K-12 school that meets the Leed Platinum standards (the highest possible level of certification), among other assets. The town has also, according to the article, "attracted thousands of eco-tourists."

On 3D printing

The Economist recently put a violin manufactured using 3D printing on its cover - one of the few times where engineering made the front page - and discussed the technology in that issue's "leaders" and "briefing" sections. Here are some highlights:

  • 3D printing is an additive (as opposed to subtractive) manufacturing technology where you build a product layer by layer - for instance, "depositing material from a nozzle" - rather than removing unneeded material.
  • 3D printing enables the production of items in very small quantities; you might create one spare part for your car or, say, one lampshade. In fact, the technology has been used for years for prototypes - what is new is that the finished product is now made using 3D printing too.
  • For now, the process only works with certain materials and 3D printers remain expensive, but costs have been falling. According to The Economist: "It is already competitive with plastic injection-moulding for runs of around [up to] 1,000 items." The technology, which allows for mass customization, gives people a say in the design of their favorite products - The Economist uses the example of cellphone cases, customized by a company named Digital Forming. The briefing has many other examples of companies using 3D printing.
  • Two quotes I found interesting: "Some in the industry believe that the effect of 3D printing on manufacturing will be analogous to that of the inkjet printer on document printing" and "The threat to [DHL]'s business is clear: why would a company airfreight an urgently needed spare part from abroad when it could print one where it is required?"
  • The articles also make very interesting points regarding intellectual property and what 3D printers will mean for imitators.

Another excellent article is "3D printing spurs a manufacturing revolution" in the New York Times back in September - using prosthetic body parts as its main example.

John Hunter at the Curious Cat blog posted a fun video about a ten-year-old discussing 3D printers. He also has several posts discussing the technology, especially "3D printing is here". In addition, YouTube has many videos demonstrating the 3D printing process. You can also skim through Wikipedia's 3D printing page. Now might be a good time for all of us to learn AutoCAD.

Engineers Week 2011

Did you know this week is National Engineers Week? Many fascinating events are planned, including the Future City Competition Finals for 6th, 7th and 8th graders - I wrote about the competition in December 2007; you can read my old post here. From the competition website: "The National Engineers Week Future® City Competition is an example of problem based learning with computer simulation.  It is an integrated, multidisciplinary, holistic approach to relevant issues and is a strong example of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics) education that addresses national and state academic content standards."

Quite amazingly, Engineers Week was founded in 1951 by the National Society of Professional Engineers and is "[d]edicated to raising public awareness of engineers' positive contributions to quality of life" (source). While I wish it a happy anniversary, I did not know this push to raise awareness had begun far before the Sputnik years. I wonder if it means engineers 60 years already felt they struggled with interesting others in their profession, especially schoolchildren expected to follow in their footsteps. Sadly, it probably does. But today's kids, whether they choose to pursue engineering as a college major (let alone a career path) in the end or not, benefit from activities such as the Future City competition, which uses the amazing SimCity software and emphasizes skills, such as teamwork and problem-solving, that are critical in many fields outside engineering.

My favorite nonprofit First Book, which is dedicated to bringing books to underprivileged children, will post a series of blog posts about engineers this week. Chandler Arnold, First Book's executive vice-president and director of First Book Marketplace, points out: "Not long ago, First Book introduced a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) section on the First Book Marketplace, our award-winning online bookstore for programs serving kids in need. This special STEM section is made possible through our partnership with Lockheed Martin, a global security company, and its K-12 education initiative, Engineers in the Classroom." In these times where many companies are cutting back on philanthropic giving and non-essential spending, Lockheed Martin's commitment to helping disadvantaged children succeed in STEM fields is truly refreshing. You can read the whole blog post here.

The first Lockheed Martin engineer profiled on the First Book blog this week is a young woman named Amanda Tippey, who works in the Dallas office. Here is an excerpt of her post, directed at young students: "For me, it was the creative aspect of engineering that appealed the most; for others, it’s the practical, the technological or, believe it or not, the analytical side of the work that most fascinates. It’s this amazing variety within the field that draws so many of us to engineering – and makes it so difficult to narrowly define."

I am looking forward to the other engineering-related posts this week!

Industry or Academia? On an ex-Harvard prof turned Googler

A Harvard professor who had recently received tenure and writes a popular blog announced a few months ago that he would not return to the academic world after his sabbatical at Google - instead, he would join Google for good.

While his recent post on the contrast between his current life as a Googler and his past life as an academic strikes a wrong note (a commenter even felt the need to remind him of the "honeymoon" period at the beginning of each job, which might be clouding his judgment; the blog author later defended himself saying he had written the post "in jest", although he seemed to be the only one finding his post jest-like), I think his posts about academia and his decision to leave do vividly illustrate the dilemmas faced by professors in engineering, who have job opportunities outside the ivory tower. Since they can provide valuable information for doctoral candidates trying to pick the best career path, I want to point them out to my readers.

The earliest post I'm going to link to is dated May 2010 and entitled "The Secret Lives of Professors". In it, the author shares his doubts on the professorial life; in retrospect, it is not surprising that he chose to leave. His comments focus on the pressure to find funding and on time management. He writes: "The biggest surprise is how much time I have to spend getting funding for my research. Although it varies a lot, I guess that I spent about 40% of my time chasing after funding." He did have a huge group, and acknowledges he was not terribly good at grant-writing, although he does not explain what, if anything, he did to improve.

As for time management, in his words: "Another lesson is that a prof's job is never done. It's hard to ever call it a day and enjoy your "free time," since you can always be working on another paper, another proposal, sitting on another program committee, whatever." I am not quite sure in what respects this differs from life in industry; the biggest issue with academia is that it is easy to work from home, and thus to never take a real break and relax. The ability to stop work at the end of the day and forget about it until the next morning, no matter the number of unfinished tasks that await you when you get back, is certainly very helpful to avoid burnout.

The last point surprised me - "Most of my days are spent in an endless string of meetings." You would expect a good department chairman to protect untenured faculty (which the author was until he was granted tenure and took his sabbatical) so that they can get their research program off the ground.

In his "Why I'm Leaving Harvard", the new Googler explains: "And of course the amount of overhead and red tape (grant proposals, teaching, committee work, etc.) you have to do apart from the interesting technical work severely limits your ability to actually get to that point [where someone at Google or Microsoft or Facebook implements the ideas he has read in a paper of yours]." Obviously, if you view even teaching as distracting from your core purpose - which you happen to define as doing technical work - and chafe at advising graduate students rather than doing the work yourself (a point the author mentions elsewhere in his posts), joining industry is the best decision you could take for yourself.

Teaching and advising make an immediate and lasting impact on society by training tomorrow's workforce. Many doctoral students find jobs based almost entirely on the strength of their PhD dissertation - that means that at some level, they would not have gotten the job without the skills their adviser taught them. Of course you don't have your name next to theirs the way you do on research papers, and you don't receive any clear recognition for your mentoring, but the indirect impact you have will be more lasting than a research paper, as it often affects the whole direction of a student's career.

As the author himself admits, academia is not for everybody - "I also admire the professors who flourish in an academic setting, writing books, giving talks, mentoring students, sitting on government advisory boards, all that. I never found most of those things very satisfying, and all of that extra work only takes away from time spent building systems, which is what I really want to be doing." Working at Google will certainly provide him with many gratifying opportunities to see his work implemented and contribute to one of the most famous companies out there. I think the decision to leave an institution such as Harvard, especially now that he had achieved tenure, shows integrity and a desire to follow his dreams that deserves respect, although it is a pity he had to waste seven years in academia when this seems to have been such a poor fit for him. But at least it allowed him to see for himself and have no regret about the academic life.

To his credit, the author let his area dean write a guest post ("Why I'm Staying at Harvard") in response to his announcement that he would not return to Harvard; taken together, these posts give a balanced account of the pros and cons of the academic career path.

I'll only quote one paragraph of the dean's post (abridged below), which captures his overall themes quite nicely - please refer to the whole post for more details: "I enjoy the freedom of working on whatever I find interesting... having the opportunity to work with a whole variety of interesting and smart people, from undergraduates to graduate students to CS colleagues all over the globe to math and biology professors a few buildings down; the ample opportunity to do consulting work... the schedule that lets me walk my kids to school most every day and be home for dinner most every night; and the security that, as long as I keep enjoying it, I can keep doing this job for the next 30+ years."

The author did the research community a great service in launching a discussion of these issues; hopefully, he and his dean will help doctoral students avoid mistakes in their own career path by giving them a more accurate picture of the professorial life.

Lehigh ISE alumnus and his company helped rescue Chilean miners

Lehigh ISE alumnus Bill Maloney '80, who owns Drill Leader Consulting in Morgantown, W.Va., offered his services when he heard, back in August, that rescue efforts were expected to last four months. According to this article in MetroNews (a West Virginia news outlet), he felt it should be possible to shorten these estimates and teamed up with other drilling experts - including Brandon Fisher of Center Rock, Inc., in Somerset County, Pa. - to assist the Chileans. They ultimately came up with the plan, known as Plan B, that allowed the miners to  be rescued. You can watch an interview with Maloney on the website of the TV station WOWK. In addition, I enjoyed reading that "the tools they took over to Chile were going to cost around $300,000 to ship [but] UPS stepped in and shipped the 20,000 pounds of drilling equipment for free." What an impressive team effort.

Choosing a PhD Program

I was recently asked on my advice regarding how to choose a PhD program, so I decide to write a full post about it and share my perspective with my readers. There are of course two different issues: (1) choosing which PhD programs to apply to, (2) choosing which one to join, when accepted. For today, I'll focus on identifying which programs to apply to.

  If you are the best student your whole university has had in recent memory, you will apply to the top schools in your discipline, which the "Graduate Schools" issue of US News helpfully ranks for you. But the magazine on newsstands only provides the rankings for the Top 10 programs in each field, which leaves many other students in the dark as to where they should apply.

Judging the quality of a PhD program is difficult for everyone but in particular for undergraduate students, who usually don't know what to look for; besides, a university with less name recognition than the one they're currently enrolled at can have stellar PhD programs in specific departments. If no one tells potential PhD students they should apply to this or that school, they will not figure it out by themselves, since they are most aware of the (often quite different) undergraduate-level rankings.

As an example, the university where I work - Lehigh University - is currently ranked 37th by US News among national research universities for its undergraduate programs, but my department is ranked 17th among all industrial engineering departments in the country at the graduate level. (Departments are not ranked at the undergraduate level.) I doubt our own undergraduates are aware of that.

Although full rankings are not published in US News, faculty members still end up knowing where their department stands compared to their peer group, so an option would be to enlist the help of professors - specifically, those who will write recommendation letters - in the student's department to refine a list of possible schools. The emphasis is on refine: you don't want your professors to do all the work for you. If you haven't done any research on your side, they might just mumble the first name that goes through their mind and leave it at that - not optimal.

So here is my most important piece of advice. I would highly recommend that undergraduate students interested in graduate programs download the free Excel file posted on the National Academies Press website; this file provides data on "more than 5,000 doctoral programs at 212 universities, cover such characteristics as faculty publications, grants, and awards; student GRE scores, financial support, and employment outcomes; and program size, time to degree, and faculty composition. Measures of faculty and student diversity are also included." (Registration is required, but information to provide is minimal.)

Because the data was collected in 2005-2006, it might no longer be accurate and therefore should be used cautiously to generate departmental rankings, but represents a fine starting point to compile a list of potential PhD programs. The file is quite large (35MB), but incorporates macros that lets the user only see the data he cares about, such as Engineering -> Operations Research, Systems Engineering and Industrial Engineering. This dramatically narrows down the list of programs. Then the file can be ranked according to just about any criterion used in the analysis.

The methodology provides a range of rankings (obtained by computing 5th and 95th percentiles) using two different methodologies, called R (for regression) and S (for survey), which differ in the way they weigh metrics such as program size, i.e., average number of PhDs granted over the past five years. The idea of range helps emphasize the difficulty of computing a precise rank to rate a given program, while the spreadsheet provides a trove of information for prospective graduate students, such as median time to degree and percentage of students who complete their degree in six years or less.

Once undergraduate students have compiled a list of possible schools using this information, they should also ask where students from their department have gone when they have enrolled to graduate school. This is good to know because it means the admissions committee at those universities knows the students' department and values the training they receive; unfortunately, some universities send few of their students to graduate school so there might not be a lot of data points.

Preliminary list in hand, students should spend time perusing the departments' webpages to eliminate programs, if any, that are not a good fit given their interests. Finally, they should ask faculty members for their input - especially faculty members they plan to ask recommendation letters from. Here, the conversation will shift from "what are good PhD programs?" to "where do you think I have a chance?" This discussion is particularly valuable because (a) many faculty members won't write a strong letter to admissions committees if they feel the student has little chance to do well in those programs (they don't want to weaken their credibility, as they will still have to recommend other students in later years; most professors politely decline to serve as a reference, e.g., citing time constraints, to give students the opportunity to find a better advocate), and (b) application fees are expensive, so it will save students a lot of time, money and energy if they use their professors' feedback to decide where to apply.

The topics of choosing a PhD program (when accepted to several) and of selecting an advisor will be the focus of future posts this month.