The term "robots" immediately conjures up futuristic images – of the empathetic androids that populate the worlds of Star Wars and Star Trek, or the novels of Arthur C. Clarke.
But of course, the reality of robotics is that the future is now: There are nearly 9 million robots in use worldwide today, a population that's nearly doubled in the last four years according to the International Federation of Robots. These range from the simple to the massive to the sophisticated – the computerized vacuums that clean our floors on auto-pilot, the million-dollar behemoths that assemble cars, or the delicate instruments that help surgeons perform lifesaving procedures.
In all, robotics has grown into a $20 billion industry by conservative estimates, with applications across the economic spectrum – manufacturing, defense and homeland security, medicine, home maintenance, agriculture and more. We believe that robotics and automation technology also represents a compelling growth opportunity for Indiana's technology sector.
There is no established center for robotic or automation innovation. A leading robotics research center at Carnegie Mellon has put Pittsburgh on the map. And Boston benefits from institutions like MIT and Boston University, and as home to key defense contractors working on drone and other robotic technologies. But there's still ample 'running room' for Indiana to establish its niche.
A key reason is that robotics is an interdisciplinary field. "Robotics is much more difficult than IT," explains Dan Kara, President of Robotics Trends Media. "It requires software engineering, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering, so it's much more difficult to build things for the real world."
Indiana brings the right mix of skills to meet this challenge. We have a vibrant and growing information technology and software engineering sector. We're blessed with a massive pool of engineering and computer science talent, as world-class programs like Purdue, Rose-Hulman, Notre Dame and IU churn out new graduates and as experienced engineers already in the workforce, especially in the automotive sector, look for new and growing opportunities. The state's manufacturing heritage provides a solid foundation for robotics companies as well – we're used to "building things for the real world."
Indiana's robotics developers also benefit from close proximity to a natural customer base. Advanced manufacturing firms are aggressively incorporating robotic systems to improve productivity and stay competitive in a global economy. It's estimated that more than a million robots are currently at work in manufacturing facilities worldwide.
By per capita income and economic output, Indiana is the most manufacturing-intensive state in the nation. Hoosier industrial automation firms therefore have unique access to a wide pool of customers, with the ability to form strategic partnerships and work closely with manufacturers to determine what really works on the factory floor.
The same goes for the health and life sciences. Indiana ranks among the leaders in medical device and pharmaceutical manufacturing, fields where high-tech automation is necessary to meet the exacting standards of industry. Indiana also has a growing defense and homeland security sector, a $4.6 billion industry involving 1,500 Hoosier companies that are active federal contractors. The need for specialized robot applications for these companies also creates great opportunities for homegrown robotics developers.
Indiana's high-tech community is seizing these opportunities. Companies like Hurco, Beckman-Coulter, Flow Robotics, Kawasaki Robotics, Amatrol, Indiana Automation Inc., and many, many more are using robotic technologies to meet the needs of customers in a variety of sectors including manufacturing, life sciences, and distribution, to name just a few. Our company, PrecisePath, has embraced the demand for 'automating the outdoors' by developing automated mowing equipment initially targeted for golf courses but with potential applications ranging from construction and landscaping to painting and snow removal.
Far from being a futuristic fantasy, robots are practical tools that are working around us every day, making our businesses more productive and assuming menial tasks to allow humans be more creative and innovative. While Indiana's robotics industry is far from established, we do several key competitive advantages that will enable this booming field to become an important pillar of our growing technology sector.
Jason Zeilke is President and COO of Precise Path Robotics - http://www.precisepath.com/.
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