Category: Podcast

The Roboticist Chronicles: How Automation in Surgery Is Helping Arc Contribute to the Greater Good

Dr. Stefan Kreuzer has seen his fellow surgeons shrug at advancements involving robots in surgery.

If they can drive home without a GPS, why involve robots in a process that already leads to a good outcome?

For Kreuzer, though, getting an assist from automation is like utilizing GPS software to check traffic patterns or suggest the best route home, even if a driver already knows one way to get the job done.

“A good surgeon can have good outcome most of the time, but that’s just not good enough. We need to have a not-so-good surgeon have excellent outcome all the time, and I think that’s where robotics can play a huge role,” Kreuzer said. “Because, currently, there’s a frightening statistic – 70% of all knee replacements are done by surgeons who do 10 or fewer a year. If we can make that surgeon a better surgeon for those 10 operations, and [add] robotics, if we train them properly, just about anybody can incorporate that into their workflow. I think we’ve done a great deal of good for society.”

Seeking the greater good is what excites ARC Specialties President Dan Allford about linking up with Dr. Kreuzer. A patient of Kreuzer’s put the pair in contact after learning of Dr. Kreuzer’s interest in robotics. The Houston residents have been able to work together to consider how to improve current methods of robotic surgery, especially in joint replacement.

That’s resulted in Allford and ARC utilizing collaborative robots and an articulated arm rather than the SCARA arms currently in use.

“This is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. In my opinion, there’s no higher calling than medicine, and, as a roboticist, I don’t get to do a lot of medicine,” Allford said. “So, I was eager to learn something more about the industry.”

With influence from Dr. Kruezer, Allford hopes he can combine the best of human minds and robotic work to produce something that truly contributes to society.

 

The Roboticist Chronicles: How Arc Helps Engineering Students Get Hands-On Experience

ARC Specialties Peter Loos Rice University

 

Sitting in a classroom and learning about engineering is much different from actually being on the job.

That’s why Dr. Peter Loos, Professor in the Practice of Materials Science and NanoEngineering at Rice University, has such a critical role. He works with seniors on their capstone projects, taking their ideas and training from the theoretical to the practical and exposing some of the gaps that might exist.

There are many lessons to be learned, he said, not least of which the way materials are acquired in the real world vs. the plans students may draw upon paper.

“In college, most of the courses are just an endless array of possibilities, so typically students are really not taught much at all about industry practices, industry-standard procedures,” Loos said. “Every major company has vast sets of standards by which they purchase materials, so outside of academia whenever materials are bought and sold there’s a vast array of specifications. We really have to teach them quite a lot about that. It doesn’t happen in those other classes, so it tends to be part of those capstone projects.”

Loos is an old friend of Arc Specialties President Dan Allford, dating back to their days with Howard Hughes’ Hughes Tool Company, and they’ve enjoyed working together in their current capacity as well.

Allford helps shepherd along some of the projects and starts training the next generation of engineers. Some projects haven’t come to fruition, but one of the latest – a knee prosthesis project done in conjunction with the Rice MSNE department to test materials used in artificial knees, shows promise.

“This whole thing is a spin-off of robotic surgery. We saw a need for something better than the cobalt chrome material because even if you can tolerate the wear, all the wear particles that are created, you don’t want them floating in your body,” Allford said. “It’s more than just a replacement issue, we’re trying to avoid having those particles move about.”

With their experience with surface coatings, they now believe they have a solution using titanium as a bearing surface.

It’s all gotten students to take their knowledge outside of the classroom, where they can start working on solutions for the real world.

The Roboticist Chronicles: The Strengths and Weaknesses of Collaborative Robots

We all can use a little help from our friends – but what if that friend is a robot?

With collaborative robots, robots with safety features that allow more human interaction or for humans to work nearby, that’s possible.

It’s not only safety where collaborative robots shine, however, with programming a task that can be taken on even by those who haven’t programmed robots before.

“In the collaborative space, I think that’s been one of the big selling points. I can pick up a pendant (and) actually grab the robot and kind of move it around and guide it through the path so you don’t have to jog it, save a point, jog it again, save another point,” said Tyler Naatz, Advanced Applications Engineer, Robotics and Automation for 3M’s Abrasives Systems Division. “You can kind of do that through follow-my-path type programming using all those sensors that are in these robots. I think that’s a big reason people are looking at them.”

With that ability to minimize the complexity of programming also comes a few drawbacks. For one, the tool force will be limited, as will the speed at which a collaborative can run. That makes it perfect for projects like orbital sanding, but perhaps not the right fit for some other endeavors.

There are other fantastic applications, as well, like a project ARC Specialties President Dan Allford was working on when he needed to polish conical pressing dies.

“To do that, we’re having to polish all the way around the circumference, around the corner, very complex shapes,” he said. “So, a robot was perfect for the application in that a robot could make all these moves. By using a collaborative robot with that sense of touch and the ability to maintain constant tool force, we’re able to, (even) as the part changed size or particularly as the abrasive changed size.”

“The collaborative robot, with that ability to translate and change trajectory on the fly based upon loads, made it a great application.”

Dan & Josh: Friendly Competition

Two Leading Automation Minds on Race Car Driving and Robotics

If there’s one thing Dan Allford, president of ARC Specialties, and Josh Sooknanan, an aerospace engineer with NASA, can agree on, it’s a need for speed.

Both friends enjoy the thrill of mountain bike racing and the even bigger thrill of race car driving. The first race car Sooknanan competed with was a car Allford loaned to him. Despite the fact that Sooknanan blew that car up during his second race, they’ve continued to race together, with Allford helping instruct Sooknanan in the art of race car driving.

How Fast Cars and Automation Bring Friendly Competition

Another interest – and perhaps friendly competition – these two share is high-level robotics. Having so many interests in common allows Sooknanan and Allford to keep each other on their toes, both on the race track and in their work.

One such example is their ongoing debate regarding the differences between autonomous and teleoperated robots. Allford believes that a machine should run entirely on its own, without human instruction, whereas Sooknanan believes a robot can be autonomous with some level of human instruction, which he refers to as supervised autonomy.

Having a level of supervised autonomy is key in the space industry, according to Sooknanan, so that robots can do their jobs safely.

“You know, with some level of oversight, [we can] make sure we’re not going to take one of these massive manipulators on the outside of a space station and poke a hole in it or something crazy like that,” Sooknanan said.

Allford on the other hand is looking for autonomy where the robot will do the same thing over and over, but also wants it to have sensor systems that give it sight and touch sensors that encourage it to adapt. According to Allford, adding sensor systems is a key element of autonomy.

“It can not only repeat a repetitive task – it can adapt to its environment. It can adapt to its parts, and then do something that it wasn’t originally programmed to do,” Sooknanan said.

A Bond Built for the Long Haul

A little friendly competition is something Sooknanan and Allford enjoy, and they don’t mind disagreeing on robotics.

“I like to pick on Josh, largely to stimulate conversation, because we’re solving similar problems in very different ways. So, by provoking him, I can get him to talk a little bit more,” Allford said.

Robotics aside, the really big question is clear – who is the better race car driver?

“What I like to remind Josh of is that a good instructor is defined by the fact that their student exceeds their skill,” Allford said.

“I concur,” Sooknanan said with a laugh.

Enjoy the Podcast: The Difference Between Robots on Earth and Robots Outer Space