Robotics Online 2.0 in the Making

March 27, 2008

By Brian Huse, Director, Marketing & PR, Robotic Industries Association

Two weeks ago a contract was signed to re-do the Robotic Industries Association Web site. The agreement was the culmination of more than two years of study, committee input, database investigation, specifications writing, a few bidding rounds, and high powered consultation. Meanwhile at RIA, event management continued unwaveringly and membership grew both those years, especially in the user and integrator categories.

In the last two weeks, RIA and its Web developer (AIMG out of New Jersey) opened up the secret lab where ingredients were mixed to grow the DNA of the new Robotics Online site. The new site’s life will have its inspiration drawn from basic building blocks developed about four years ago by RIA’s MARCOM Committee. Also contributing to the magic is bits and pieces from the Statistics Committee, the Membership Committee, the New Markets Committee, the Education Committee, Board members and others with a stake in the robotics industry.

Even people who visited the old site (i.e. the one that’s up while I write this blog) contributed through survey input. The tradition of comprehensive inclusion continues.

Along with a rich heritage, big changes are at hand with the new site. For one thing, database interaction will be enhanced exponentially. Flood gates will open and more data than ever will transfer to site visitors and members. Members will have dashboard access to their corner of a site that is alive with thousands of visitors per day.

Visitors who always have been drawn to the site will have far more to be attracted to when it comes to robotics. Search aids will speed their navigation and increase their productive time on the site. Information will flow from far more sources as the Association enhances its database with more functionality. Results will be easier to get, ever more relevant and increasingly meaningful.

Stage one of the Web site is scheduled to role out in time for Robots 2008: What’s Next. More than 3,000 documents will be touched when it is done. Member’s Only access will be more than rewarding; it will be useful in running a business.

In the last two weeks, we here at the RIA lab have been working on deployment of a new Robotics Online Web site. It started with intense data mining, and will commence with a fury, building at the same time a marketing wave launches for Robots 2008 this June. Look out, cyber world and robot buffs everywhere; Robotics Online “two-point-oh” is in the making.


Tuning into Robotics: What’s Next?

March 10, 2008

By Brian Huse, Director, Marketing & PR, Robotic Industries Association

According to lore, the U.S. Navy’s Aegis Missile Defense System owes much of its current status to guitarist Jeff Baxter of the rock band the Doobie Brothers. The band released songs in the 1980’s that continue to get airtime at contemporary and oldies rock stations today. Now, in a way, Jeff Baxter is helping us shoot down broken satellites before they fall into a China grove or California vineyard.

This was on my mind not long ago when the United States prepared to shoot down a newly launched and totally broken spy satellite. I sat in a Wendy’s restaurant at lunchtime reading about the first-ever mission to destroy a falling satellite with Aegis technology while “What a Fool Believes” by the Doobie Brothers played above me on the restaurant’s speakers.

You might remember that day. There was a full lunar eclipse in the evening. Also, NASA had just delivered a new, 30,000-pound addition to the International Space Station (the European Space Agency’s science lab module, “Columbus.”)

I find it fascinating that the satellite we shot down that day weighed about 10,000 pounds, and meanwhile the space station calls for nearly a million pounds of total mass by the time it is completed, but I digress.

Anyway, why blog about such a strange day in space exploration on a site devoted to robotics? Call it homage to my everlasting taste for funky music, space exploration and cool science, and how all these topics can sometimes come together in such spectacular ways.

For instance, did you know a Canadian-built robot called Dextre is on the roster of tenants for the space station? It is designed to work on the outside of the station and help minimize the need for manned space walks to perform dangerous and/or routine maintenance. (If all goes as planned, Dextre will be “onboard” the space station within days of this blog’s posting.)

With two arms, a torso of sorts and onboard vision, the robot is said to be very sophisticated and yet very basic. It is not some automaton with artificial intelligence, but rather a multi-axis, reprogrammable device that can use different tools and work remotely under the command of people who stay safe inside the orbiting vessel.

People right here on earth already use two-armed robots, and robots with machine vision, and specialized robots for handling hazardous or routine jobs. Thanks to decades of work on human-machine interfaces and tremendous advancements in cheap computing power, these machines are essential and commonplace at many businesses.

But robots will never take the place of artists and musicians; much less make inspirational jumps from the music studio to military think tanks.

Thanks in a way to the Doobie Brothers, we have some great old music and unmatched defense technology.

And thanks to some very smart and creative people in our industry, new and interesting robot applications are coming out all the time.

Speaking of interesting, some of the most successful people in the robotics industry belong to Robotic Industries Association, and as you might imagine, I hope one day you will join us. In fact, please come to Boston in the summer when we hold Robots 2008 “What’s Next” (click here for more details.)

Just for kicks and grins, how many song references can you find in this blog?

Learning from a Leader: Problem Solving with RIA President Rich Litt

March 3, 2008

By Brian Huse, Director, Marketing & PR for Robotic Industries Association 

Problem solving is one of your duties when you are president. I recently learned that Robotic Industries Association’s new President, Richard Litt of Genesis Systems, is a very tenacious problem solver and a man who pays great attention to detail.

Rich was at our headquarters this February in advance of a board meeting for RIA and its two sister associations. From a new Robotics Online Web site to industry seminars like Robots 2008 the next year will be full of big initiatives, and Rich and other top industry executives on the board provide leadership and guidance for our staff.

As it turns out, one little issue was really bugging Rich and he brought it up during our time together. Why, he wondered, did he get RIA newsletters in ugly, old, plain text? In the next few days he and the rest of the board would be addressing much bigger business issues, but I came to see he considered even this little detail to be very important. It wasn’t just an irritation to him; he knew it might be affecting others and inhibiting our ability to communicate.

So, this little detail became the focus of quite a bit of scrutiny while he was here. In the process, he pushed me and the rest of the staff to look beyond our assumptions.
You see, I was certain it had something to do with his computer settings. Robotics Online newsletters are sent by an e-mail client that offers plain text or html. This is a common setup for blast e-mail clients, because experience shows that some recipients can’t accept (or don’t want) html. The solution is to provide an option for plain text.

“It must be a function of settings on your computer,” I told Rich. “We don’t manually determine which way it gets delivered.”

I was as sure of myself as I could be. We checked with his IT staff and sent some experimental e-mails. For no obvious reason, this went fine for them – they got html no problem. Then he asked questions that led to curiosity about the form that is used to register for the newsletter, so we looked to see if a different answer could be found there. Sure enough, there is a setting on the form that allows you to pick html or plain text.

Here’s where it gets murky. It turns out this setting on that form is the equivalent to a broken link. Thanks to a glitch we didn’t know about: that part of the form does not talk directly to our e-mail client and therefore has no bearing on whether you get plain text or html. This line of investigation yielded a bit of a red herring, but on the other hand it helped us see the form was not doing what we thought it was and we can now fix it.

Tech support is on the case, and whatever else, this little detail raised a bigger issue: do other subscribers suffer from the same annoyance? I know I had some faulty assumptions. The implication is we should (probably) change the setting for others who get only plain text e-mails from RIA.

I’ve had just a few chances to spend quality time with Rich, but as I hear his stories and see how he works, I suspect one reason he has been so successful for so long is thanks to great attention to detail. Another thing I’ve learned is that he is a wealth of information on how to negotiate. (Ask him some day to explain how to drive a “Hard Bargain.” Don’t be surprised if the answer involves a Boston Whaler.)

You can find out for yourself how little details and a big perspective can lead to greater success for your company when RIA President, Rich Litt, speaks at Robots 2008 in June in Boston, Massachusetts. He and a very powerful lineup of RIA executives will be there to help robot users and integrators ask the right questions and make the best decisions for success with robotics in any business and any application.