Episode 17

The History of Industrial Robotics

with Thomas Crihfield

Thomas Crihfield

Head of Partner Success

In this episode, Tee Ganbold sits down with Thomas Crihfield, Head of Success at SVT Robotics, to talk about the history of industrial robotics and what got us where we are today.

Topics in this conversation include: 

  • How we got where we are today (5:21)
  • Break down of the robotic arm (8:16)
  • What inspired the adoption of industrial robotics (14:53)
  • How many industrial robots there were at the beginning versus today (19:10)
  • Friction points in the adoption of industrial robotics (25:36)
  • Cost perspective of adopting industrial robots (31:49)
  • Technical competence, success, and the fear of missing out (34:06)
  • Having the most efficient supply chain or ecommerce platform (39:12)
  • Advice for those whose current job may become automated (44:45)

 

SVT Robotics is a company that’s eliminating code so end-user manufacturing companies can connect any robot to any interface in the automation space. Currently, their focus is on the warehouse and manufacturing space, but long-term goals include stepping into home goods.

Automating The Chain bridges the learning gap between business executives and their technical counterparts. In each episode, we learn from CTOs and experts in industrial automation as they explain their technology in an accessible way. For more information, or to subscribe, please visit https://www.automatingthechain.com/.

Share this Episode:

Share on linkedin
Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on email

Transcription

Tee Ganbold 0:10
Welcome to Automating The Chain, the weekly podcast and webinar specifically engineered to support and educate executives as they explore the potential of industrial automation. Each week we sit down with an executive leader or their technical counterpart of an international organization to discuss how they plan to leverage industrial automation to advance their business, who also have startups focused on automating the supply chain, explain the technology in an accessible way. Experts in the field will color in historical and current case studies. Without further ado, let’s get into the show.

Hi, Thomas.

Thomas Crihfield 0:56
Hi, Tee Ganbold. How are you?

Tee Ganbold 0:57
Good, thanks. Well, this is our first Automating The Chain hub or bar session. We had this idea when we were brainstorming. We were thinking, “God, during COVID, everyone’s at home and suddenly you can’t get all these creative ideas from sharing a space with someone at the bar, adding new information.” And we thought, “You know what, let’s create a virtual bar. Let’s learn and share information about our industry which is so crucial to our current society.” Just to set the context, the World Economic Forum is currently holding a virtual Davos from the 25th to the 29th and all the discussions center around how COVID has completely reset the global economy, how digital transformation has been accelerated: five years in two months. The first few months of COVID, five years just completely accelerated. So we’re seeing a lot of companies go through industrial analysis, maybe industrialization 3.0, before we even get to industrialization 4.0. But we’re here to talk about where the industry of industrial robotics is going and where in the industrial revolution we’re currently witnessing. Where do we sit in that? To introduce you, Thomas, you’re the Head of Success at SVT Robotics, a company that’s getting rid of all code and making sure an end-user manufacturing company can make sure that they can essentially plug any robot in, is my understanding. Is that right?

Thomas Crihfield 2:52
Yeah, that’s correct. To give a brief overview of who we are, I think you hit the nail on the head, we’re trying to connect any robot to any interface in the automation space. Right now, our focus is primarily on warehouse and manufacturing space, but obviously long term we hope to connect any robot to anything so you might even see us in home goods. The future is so vast, we really are trying to make this door wide open for the future.

Tee Ganbold 3:24
To give you a bit of context on us and to introduce myself, I’ve seen a few different technological waves and I’ve noticed from how data science was used in marketing when I was at Cambridge Analytica, I was speaking to each executive, literally saying, “Look, you have this amount of data and this is how you can make sure each audience can receive a certain amount of information.” At that time, it felt so novel. Even with Aetherium, when I was working with a co-founder of Aetherium, we were trying to explain what blockchain was. Of course, everyone in the world now is talking about blockchain and cryptocurrencies, so my goal with Automating The Chain is to go back to basics. Industrial robotics is so crucial to all of our lives. The fact that we get goods delivered to our doorstep the next day with Amazon Prime. There are so many components to that in the supply chain, in the national supply chain, the regional, the global supply chain and my fascination is to understand how does it get to my doorstep in one day? And how do we make sure that people can afford these products and services? So today’s session is on the history of industrial robotics. Thomas, I would love to—in a really informal manner, as if we were literally sitting in a bar—I’d love you to give us a bit more context. I’ll ask you some questions, they will be very basic, and I hope it will be educational for people who are trying to understand. But can you just tell us a little bit about how we got here today?

Thomas Crihfield 5:19
Yeah, absolutely. If you take it back and you boil it down, the industrial revolution happened just over a century ago and we were really living in the product of that Industrial Revolution. Think about wage rates, what you were able to earn as a human being 150 years ago versus today. I know that wage conversation in a political sense is a completely different topic, but I’m just talking about earn ability today was completely revolutionized by the Industrial Revolution. If you think about it, the curve that happened from 1900 to today all started because of that. What was the first real adopted automation and product that we used automation for? Let’s boil it down. It’s no surprise to anyone that the automobile was the first product that got to see it. What’s interesting is, if you look up the word “automation,” it was never really widely used before the 1930s, so you have some adopting of that word, but “automation” in its purest sense as a word— I think Merriam added it in the 40s, 1945 to ’47, somewhere in there. A large reason for that is we didn’t have a word for the thing we were doing, which was automating, and we started by automating with humans. We took an assembly line— or I think that Ford was the adopter of the assembly line. I don’t think he was the inventor, however, I hear him often coined as the inventor. He basically automated the process by producing goods to a line in a fashion that allows us to assemble things faster, better, more affordable, and ultimately resulted in a product that everyone could buy. You then fast forward a handful of decades and you get to the 50s where the first industrial robot was introduced. Then it’s the late 50s. I would almost argue that I don’t think they actually were widely introduced until the 60s and mid-60s. Nonetheless, the robotic arm—not the first robotic arm, because that was introduced in the 1600s—but the industrial robotic arm, that was really the start of what we’re seeing today. AGVs came just a short few years after.

Tee Ganbold 7:53
Can you explain to anyone who’s new to the topic? Because so many people are going to be entering this industrial robotic space. I really predict that. If we break down all the terminology, let’s make it accessible.

Thomas Crihfield 8:12
Absolutely. To go back to the robotic arm, it’s essentially—think of your arm mounted on a pedestal—and they tried to mimic the joints of the human arm because we as humans tend to design things that look very organic, much like a car looking like a smiling face when it’s driving down the road. As inventive and as creative as we are, we tend to go back to what we know, so the robotic arm is just that: it’s like an arm, but the end-effector or the piece that interfaces with—whether it’s a welder or whether it’s assembling or maybe even a driver to put on a screw or a nut or a bolt, those kinds of things—that’s the core of its functionality, but the arm in itself is just moving point to point and doing a task. AGV, as I mentioned, is an automated guided vehicle. There are all different adaptations to that now. You’ll hear AMR or Advanced Mobile Robotics, which is—in its essence—an AGV with maybe some features added to it, whether it be a conveyor bed on the top of it or maybe even a robotic arm more or less crafted to the top to be able to move not only on any plane but then also be able to grab or maybe perform a task at a set workstation and then drive away. All those things. Going back to the history, you have the introduction of the arm, then the AGV, and then we got craftier and started using what you could almost say is the widespread use of that platform and we started getting better and better at their use cases, such as welding. You think about that as a skill and me being able to weld. If I were to go teach a fella down the street how to weld, his ability may differ from mine and then as he develops his skill, his variant and his processes are much different from mine. So when they went to do things that were wildly variable, that’s where they started finding these use cases which—in the automotive market, again—drove a lot of our automation that we see today. It was that vehicle of what we use this thing for in its perfect case. You still see a lot of humans on assembly lines and that is because there are widely variable processes that are very expensive and very difficult to automate. So you’ll see the people handling the dash panels in many of these cars. Not necessarily anymore. That is getting more and more automated as we get smarter about how to use the robot. But in essence, you can still see some lines where it’s manual and some lines where it’s automated, it really comes down to that complexity. Then you hit an era, I would say in the 80s and 90s, where the wage difference and the expense of those robots were really at a climb in both directions. The robot is still really expensive to buy, the wage is still pretty affordable compared to what the robot cost and integration are. And for about a decade, almost two, there was a struggle on do we automate this, do we not? Then there’s also manufacturability. You’ll hear DFM or Designed For Manufacturing. When they think about it, how they designed it, do they want it to look like a robot designed it? Or do they want it to look like a human interacted with it? Because again, we as humans like organic things, and when you interface with something organic rather than robotic, you know the difference. That struggle and that kind of tension, if you think about the way the world works, that was the struggle for about two decades. Now, post millennia, we have—in the last two decades of my life especially—from the 90s the adoption of the cell phone and other items that entered our lives as daily use. In the 90s there was a new personal computer on the market every week. You bought one and the next week it was already obsolete. Thinking in that same format, industrial robotics has now caught up in the last two decades to that. Now there’s a new fad every set week or month or even year. In my space specifically, in the warehouse automation space for the last five years, the introduction of Kiva (now owned by Amazon). That in and of itself was the buzzword for 10 years. Just like Coca-Cola, referencing a soda for Coca-Cola. You could say “Kiva” for another bot and that was the funny thing. It almost became the Kleenex of tissues or the Coke of sodas. It’s interesting now because now it’s every single week when you hear of a new one. And since COVID, I wouldn’t hesitate to say 50% more industrial automation companies are manufacturing robots today than at the start of COVID. If you look online, you will be hard-pressed to find the total number of manufacturers in the world. A big reason for that is because, not only do you have companies building them, but you also have users building robots for their specific needs. They’re actually hiring the labor pool to build the robot for them. They’re actually hiring the minds. They do it themselves!

Tee Ganbold 13:52
Thomas, I have so many questions. You cannot believe. I feel like a school child.

Thomas Crihfield 13:58
I would pause there.

Tee Ganbold 13:58
Okay, let’s pause for a second while I ask you a bunch of questions. Let’s start with the automation industry, the use case. Clearly, the industrial robotics space had a use case, people saw the need for it. At Ford and other automobile manufacturers, why was it that they had the foresight to take very repetitive tasks? Especially very heavy tools being moved around. Even Tesla today uses industrial robotics. When did other industries start adopting it? I’m fascinated, of course, by something that’s so used by consumers.

Thomas Crihfield 14:50
Absolutely. You have to boil it down to two things. You have (1) the assembly line adoption, that repetitive automation of a process, or the repetitive use of that. That adoption came probably a decade after Ford really started using it. I think that really started catching on and gaining serious traction just after the Great Depression because, as you know, the automobile was about the only thing that was really as widely known as it was up until the Great Depression, and then you started getting on to consumer goods. Things like the radio, home appliances, whether it be going from a Victrola to the Zenith Radio. You’re going from a manual unit to an electric unit and adopting that in consumer goods, but you also had it washers and dryers. Ford probably said it best when he said he wanted every person to be able to afford it and he wanted every person to be able to access it. Think about not only wanting it but needing it, so then the world started going after things when the microwave was introduced, as that started to gain traction. I don’t think the microwave ever lived a life where it was one-off bills, I think it was always in an automated fashion because of its timing. But you start thinking about consumer goods and that helps. When you think about a cell phone being built today and in the era in industry that it was, you have a fad that hits and everybody immediately wants it. I remember when—and I probably won’t be talking to the next generation, but I’ll be talking to generations like me and maybe a little older—when the iPhone was released. I remember the wait times for getting one. I think I had to wait two months after the point of ordering it to actually see it. And keep in mind that there weren’t many to go look at in the store because this was before they made the fake models to sit out and display. It wasn’t a widespread thing to actually handle the real one.

Tee Ganbold 17:15
Now what you’re saying to me is that it has to be something that has demand. A consumer good where there is a lot of demand, you know that industrial robotics will be applied. That is my understanding.

Thomas Crihfield 17:25
Absolutely.

Tee Ganbold 17:27
At that time in history, a consumer good such as a car, everyone particularly in America deserved a car and was going to get a car, and Ford was on that measure.

Thomas Crihfield 17:41
Absolutely.

Tee Ganbold 17:42
And every housewife can be freed up because they have a microwave and etc, etc.

Thomas Crihfield 17:48
Absolutely.

Tee Ganbold 17:50
Let’s fast forward a little bit in your timeline. When you talk about the explosion of the industry and now it’s getting so much traction, how many robots are there now? And how many industrial robots were there when it really started to take off? Let’s say I was one of the first buyers of industrial robotics. And then what does it look like now? How many are there in the world? And what do you think the gap is? So someone might say, “Thomas, what is the—”

Thomas Crihfield 18:34
You’re speaking my language there.

Tee Ganbold 18:37
What is the market potential of industrial robotics? How much is it going to grow?

Thomas Crihfield 18:47
That last one, with the needing the crystal ball, is going to be a little harder, but I can tell you based on some market experience and some insight. To go back to the boom of industrial automation, let’s just talk about robots in general because I think to go outside of that to just pure automation is a little bit more difficult. At that boom, probably in the 70s, we were in the 10s of 1,000s of units sold and probably less than that in operation constantly because, as you know, in every industry there are those failed missions that people end up mothballing almost in year one. So I would say that you are in the 10s of 1,000s in operation through most of the early 70s. To the Delta today, it’s said that there are around 12 million industrial robots that have been sold. Around 3 million of them are in operation every day, so 1% of the US population is represented by a robot in the world. Keep in mind, so if you think about even percentages yet, there are roughly three to 400,000 industrial robots sold on an annual basis since 2019. Now, 2020 figures haven’t come out yet, and I think anybody who would speculate would be wrong because there were a lot of things happening in rapid transaction as people were shuffling to figure out how to handle the mess they were in caused by COVID. But that delta is huge when you think about how we were probably in the 10s, of 1,000s 50 years ago and we are in the multiple millions today. And I have no doubt that the 3 million industrial robots in operation today will be 6 million in operation in two years to five years. I say that it could be as early as two years because I think that there’s a huge reset in COVID which could accelerate the next two years, but everybody was predicting the next five to double. I give that assessment because, when they said there was an increase of 12% into 2020 expected from 2019, it actually doubled to almost 30%. During the COVID crisis, if you do the math really quickly, you know how fast that doubles, so it’s quite impressive and frightening because we have a lot of work to do. But then to go back to the crystal ball to answer the last bit of that question, I think that it is also going to morph from monolithic robotic systems. In the past, let’s just say, for instance, you hire a company and you do the whole production line. I think there’s still going to be a space for that, but I don’t think that the majority of the installs are going to be those going forward. I actually see them being bite-sized pieces to handle a small task and that small task is going to be handled by multiple point solutions doing what they’re really good at, getting back to the basics of why industrial automation was ever done: find a small task and make it better. Then now, because they are more affordable, you will be able to take those pieces and mold them together to make your monolithic system by making bite-sized pieces. I think that is also going to double or triple or even quadruple those numbers over the upcoming years because of the availability of them. In the 70s you probably had five manufacturers for robotic arms. Maybe across the world you had somewhere around 12, and those players are still out there today, they’re still doing much of what they were doing innovating in their space. But today there’s—I don’t think I’m wrong when I say—100s of 1,000s of companies making industrial robots. And if you say just robots in general, I mean, let’s talk about the Roomba rolling around in our house. I don’t want to go to that space, but focusing on industrial automation, I think there are 100s of 1000s of companies making robots.

Tee Ganbold 23:13
To reiterate why industrial robotics is so important, it’s simply because so much of the global workforce is dependent on a global supply chain coming from one place across the world. But now with onshoring and the increase in investment at home and therefore looking at an alternative way to bring onshoring home, it seems pertanate to talk about industrial robotics. I guess my question to you is that there’s this explosion now of potential startups and a lot of engineers creating industrial robots. There are lots of companies now looking to connect it and almost be the solution that makes sure— For example, SVT makes sure that the end user can have lots of robots and the time to implement all of them is lowered. Can you tell us what the main friction points are in the adoption of industrial robotics at the moment? And then, who seems to be in the history book? The Technology Trap outlines Luddites, those who do not want technological progress, and those who do want technological progress. In this case, can you just tell me who and anyone who wants to be future discussions? Who is actually stopping this growth and investing in industrial robots? And if they are stopping it, do they have legitimate reason? This is a very loaded, social question, but it’s gonna be important. Those who are for it merely want efficiency to make sure that we got our goods tomorrow. Let’s talk about the people who are now challenging this group. We’re meant to get to a certain amount in five years, who might create friction for those who are for industrial robotics?

Thomas Crihfield 25:31
There’s actually a lot of points in there, so I’ll try to make sure that I tap them off and keep me on it. So we have who is actually taking industrial robotics on in large swaths? What are the drivers of that are why are they accepting it? Then who are the people who are resisting it and why and do they have valid reasons? There’s a socioeconomic mixture here. It’s no secret that China and Japan are wanting to end industrial robots today. China, while they produce large amounts of the world’s goods, still has the same problems that Henry Ford did in the industrial revolution start: getting that product finished in a timely manner that was acceptable to the end user. Most goods that are coming from China to the United States are taking a boat, so there’s a week or two process that you cannot cut out of it. Unless you start flying everything over, it’s riding on a boat. That is a large reason why they are adopting is for speed and efficiency there. Honestly, their labor is inexpensive. Everybody says that things are going to China and it’s because they can pay pennies on the dollar, and that’s true for most economies that would listen to what we’re talking about today. Japan has always been what I would consider a pioneer in automation. Toyota is one of the most talked about companies in the history of manufacturing. If you go into any company manufacturing something in the United States and you say “Toyota quality,” they’re going to start naming off things like Ishikawa diagrams for root cause analysis and they’re going to start naming off certain fundamental values around Toyota quality that gets you where you want to be with the highest quality product for the cheapest amount of money and the consumer is going to love it. That’s the brand if you embrace it. For Japan it’s a culture thing, for China it’s the speed, and then you think about countries like the Europe region where wage cost is a lot higher and they’re trying to automate to offset that gap. But keep in mind, they’re still trying to get things to market fast as well. The United States is actually third, but it’s probably surprising to people that were third when you think about how much of our GDP, our Gross Domestic Product, is actually controlled in the states and how much is manufactured here. Because I live in the United States and I talk to a lot of United States CEOs and decision makers and process owners, I think I can answer the third question. So I tapped on (1) who, (2) the economic driver, or what drives them there, so the third part is the people who are resistant. You have some decision makers in the United States that are a part of the generation that thinks “you work harder and you win because you work harder.” I think that that’s still a valuable argument. I think that argument has dwindled. Again, not to talk bad about my grandfather’s generation, but as my grandfather’s generation gets out of management and on to retirement and into retirement, they’re no longer in those decision-making processes. I think their mindset has taken a backseat, but there’s still a small percentage that live in that realm of “why would we automate it? We just work harder and we get there.” Then you have the mindset of “I have lived through failed projects and I don’t want to live through another one” where they are a direct replacement of the sins of their past and they live in that world of “I’m going to take the risk assessment route, and I’m going to avoid any disruption to my day to day because that disruption scares me and terrifies me.” And rightfully so. I think that that’s valid. I, unfortunately, have witnessed companies failing in the past and in large, large projects, much to the reason why I mentioned before the adopting of small point solutions, answering the small call, and then (during many of those over a set period of time) answering the large call. I think that takes the lion’s share of those who resist it. So we have the edge case, the small reason why anybody would avoid it and the large reason why anybody would avoid it. There’s a large portion of it leftover of why people don’t adopt it and don’t bring it in, some of which is the cost. There’s still a lot of industrial automation that is hard to judge, it’s hard to justify and get it in because of that cost. Our labor market in the United States is still relatively inexpensive, especially when you start to compare it to Europe and things of that nature. That would answer probably the biggest of them. Then you have these little bitty sections of pieces where you walk into one company and they feel like it’s not a direct fit for them or they can’t do that correlation of “that robot does this thing, but I don’t know that that will do it well for me.”

Tee Ganbold 31:01
An executive out there who owns a manufacturing hub is probably thinking, “Okay, let’s say I’m starting to really warm up to the idea of wanting industrial robots. You know what? Culturally, I’m ready. I’m ready. I’m ready to go.” And then I would then go to cost. In the past, I’ve heard stories of it costing a million to implement industrial robots. Can you just debunk the cost element? Does it cost a million to install industrial robots? Or does it cost much less? Because I’m sure it differs. But can you give us an idea of what it looks like from a cost perspective in today’s market? Let’s say in North America.

Thomas Crihfield 31:48
To say millions, though, in order to get to millions today, you’re talking a very, very large system. I’m talking very, very large. I can’t speak to whom, but there are automakers doing full-on assembly lines for small bite-sized pieces of their network for the 100s of 1,000s of dollars. Multiple hundreds of $1,000. But still, probably a quarter million or so, and they’re doing it smarter. They’re doing it in small pieces and building a network rather than doing this one huge monolithic system. But for the average robotic cell, you’re in probably the 10s of 1000s of dollars. Then, in the warehouse industrial space, you can get into robots as a service now. It’s not even about that one large sum. You’re actually paying it as an operating expenditure rather than this large capital investment. I think you’re spot on when you say that “it’s gonna be millions of dollars.” Yeah, you’re right. The people that do complain about the costs are the people who don’t have a reality of it. But I do see CEOs and decision-makers and companies getting smarter every day. I see them going to you. It’s interesting because they’re not just relying on the industrial engineers, or the ops managers to tell them what they should do anymore. They’re actually investing the time to do the research themselves.

Tee Ganbold 33:17
Of course, Automating The Chain exists for that reason.

Thomas Crihfield 33:21
And we exist for that reason. It’s amazing because I talk to more leaders and highering company leaders today than I did five years ago. I love that because, when you get that buy-in with the leadership, first, it makes everything easier and you’re not playing the shell game at the project level either, where you’re showing them the part that they actually care about. They want to see the robots dance. That used to be a thing we would say: “Make the robots dance, the CEOs are here.” You don’t have to live in that world anymore because they know what the robot’s doing, so they don’t have to watch it do some fancy task.

Tee Ganbold 34:06
I have a theory. It’s really based on Malcolm Gladwell, the writer of Outliers. He believes that it depends on when in time you were exposed to technology and therefore you might win in the industry. Let’s say Koch Industries, one of America’s largest private industrial companies out there. Look at the history: Charles Koch, who’s currently the CEO, managed to take the company from 500 million turnovers to 20 billion, if not more, and he did that because he was a technical leader and he had multiple degrees and was very much a scientist. Do you think that today—executives, CEOs, industrial leaders—are now starting to realize that, if they do not have that curiosity in technology and science, then actually they will be disrupted? Whereas in the past, someone like Charles Koch realized that—they definitely had many competitive advantages—but that scientific approach to making sure that operation mines were efficient, making sure the teams were efficient. Do you think that executives out there realize that they need to make decisions based on science? Need to make decisions based on, if they don’t understand what AI is today or industrial robots, that they might actually be out of the game very soon?

Thomas Crihfield 35:57
Yeah, and actually, I would even go one step further to pop culture if you’ve ever heard the term FOMO. Fear Of Missing Out. I don’t think that it’s even too far to say that I’ve had companies that could not justify the ROI but they had the capital spend because they were a rich or cash-focused company that actually had a good amount sitting in the bank. They went in and invested in industrial robotics for the future because, not only did they want the really cool, shiny thing sitting there doing the task, but they also wanted to market it. They saw it as a risk but they thought “I can market that. I am the right selection to do business with because I think ahead.” It’s amazing to see that shift in even the last decade. It’s been such a large shift. Now that could be, like you mentioned, more technical leaders finding their way into these roles. That could be a portion of it. But largely, it’s exactly what you mentioned. It’s the “if I don’t do this, I get left in the dust.” Let’s talk about really quick the thing you mentioned earlier: “I purchased today, and it shows up on my door tomorrow.” Most people don’t realize there are a lot of companies selling on Amazon that never see a warehouse that is operated and owned by Amazon. There are companies out there that are building their warehouses forward to keep up with that demand. I’m not even saying they’re selling on Amazon. They’re just trying to compete in the market and they don’t want to lose their market share. There is a huge risk of missing out and missing your market today much more than there was 10 years ago, especially in the warehouse space. I’m speaking specifically for the supply chain. Honestly, that’s the world we live in, industrial automation being that widespread. There are other markets that you can miss out on. Let’s talk about the electronic car. How many people have you seen flock to that market since Tesla’s success? There will be early adopters and there will be second and third and fourth to the market, but let’s be honest: they’re all in that fear of missing out and not making it. No different there is the world of the supply chain.

Tee Ganbold 38:28
You hit the nail on the head. FOMO seems like one of the greatest drivers as to why the market’s pulling companies and executives to looking into the space. When you talk about Amazon, that’s the real elephant in every room. Thomas, I don’t think I ever mentioned it, but Clear AI—the company that I co-founded—was looking at how we can build a collective of lots of supply chain companies that might stitch together and become an Amazon, and behind that is the technology the Knowledge Graph, and that’s essentially my obsession. What does the future look like? How do you have the most efficient-to-date company in the global supply chain, ecommerce platform that is connected? From literally the button you press when you order something to the industrial robot. That is, making sure it gets to the right place at the right time. How does every business executive out there get to that stage? That’s a huge question. How do they get there?

Thomas Crihfield 39:44
It is, and a deeper dive would be great for a future conversation, but I can give it to you from the consulting mind’s perspective. You need to make sure that point of click gets to you and your allocation engine as fast as possible. I could start mentioning things like order management systems and warehouse management systems, but ultimately, the data of the person making the order, that data needs to get to the allocatable data—that is, your shop floor or your warehouse—as instantaneously as possible. That is the first step. The second step is getting that digital— Your order that you get at your door lives in a digital realm in the warehouse management system or whatever drives your orders on your warehouse floor. That digital clone of your actual order needs to be realized as soon as it possibly can. Inside of the warehouse, it needs to be as adaptable and as flexible as possible. I hate the word flexible because for the last three to five years I have heard that in everyone’s sales pitch, but it’s still valid. What flexibility really means— and to boil it back to even bringing in some history involved. I mentioned all these companies that sell or fulfill through Amazon’s channel. I get this question every day: “Why do I get this box that is the size of my dog and it has a pack of pens in it?” Or “Why did I get this box and it has my cell phone charger in it when it could have been shipped in something the size of an envelope?” It all comes down to the infrastructure, the infrastructure and the four walls. If you go back 20, 30 years ago, 90-98% of the warehouses in the United States were handling case volume. No eaches. No piece pick. No individual orders. They were handling cases. The rollers that convey those boxes from point to point in that warehouse are large roller centers, meaning the rollers are spaced apart in order to handle a heavy box. Those rollers might be four to three inches in diameter, but they’re heavy. They’re able to handle heavy cases of— Think of a box of dish soap, 24 of them in a box. One by itself weighs a pound and a half, two pounds. But in a case, it’s now a 25-pound box, so that conveyor was made to handle that. Well, you have this ecommerce push, which is growing at exponential rates year over year. In the last five years, those companies that were trying to ship cases 20 years ago are trying to adapt that case mentality to your order carton. So they’re doing the reverse of case pick and picking eaches and then using that same conveyor to convey out that thing, which is now your pack of pens but was once a case. To fast forward into how that correlation happens, you get the data to the warehouse, and then inside you can no longer be handling volumes as a case. You need to be able to ship envelopes. You need to be able to ship mailing bags and those sorts of things. And keep in mind that not everything can ship in an envelope or a parcel pack. You’re going to need to go flat rate boxes there. I think you can almost do like a 12 by 12 by six now as a flat rate box. So you’re gonna have to be able to adapt all of those while still shipping desktop computers—because people still buy them—space heaters and swimming pools because you can get your blowup swimming pool in your backyard. You have to be able to handle all these things. You just need to adapt.

Tee Ganbold 43:40
Thomas, the last question I have—because I know that we’re running out of time—is that I would love to understand how we’re going to get more people. My prediction is that the majority of people, like with lamplighters— Once upon a time, lamplighters would be switching on each lamp at a time until Thomas Edison’s electrification, then you have a button that turns on 15,000. I love that statistic. My guess and my prediction is that more people will go into the industrial robotics space because more people will have a universally based income and more people will be at home, therefore you need to spend to keep the economy going. We will have lots of products and services. We will have people who have income, whether it’s from the state or a company. I’ll transition into how to maintain an industrial robot. What’s your advice to anyone who might be doing something today that might be automated out? And that’s the reality. A lot of jobs will be automated out. What jobs would you recommend to start looking into, to start getting trained in? I just spoke to READY Robotics. The CEO is training plumbers to become maintenance handlers in warehouses of industrial robots. The same with Amazon. They’re increasing wages of people who upskill. Do you have a recommendation? Because I might go and do that course, obviously.

Thomas Crihfield 45:39
This actually could be long-winded too, but again, just wave your hand or something to be my flasher time. I would put it into a set few groups and pools, just to keep it simple, because not everybody is mechanically inclined or wants to do things mechanical. I’m very sensitive to that because I’ve hired all types throughout my career and I want to be sensitive to that. If you are a mechanically inclined individual, definitely push the boundaries on your mechanical and electrical knowledge. Try to get as much as you can. And I’m not pushing university because, if you’re not cut out for university, it’s fine, you can still be a service tech or something along those lines. The beauty of robotics today and the information world that we have, you don’t necessarily have to know every single one, you just need to not be afraid of interfacing with it. If you have a broken toaster, take it apart and figure out why it does what it does, those kinds of things. There’s a funny Dilbert video called “The Knack” and it was me as a child. I was the kid that took apart things and fixed them and I didn’t even know that I was doing it. It was just because I got to learn how things work. So be that person and don’t stop being that person if you’re mechanically inclined. If you’re not in that realm of, “I don’t care how it works but I want to make sure that I have a job and I like doing things,” think of things like project management, technical assistance. If you like software, software is going to be heavy and it’s only going to get heavier. Going back to the project management or organization, if you’re somebody who loves to highly organize and keep things in check and you like to check in boxes— It’s one of my OCDs. I actually write things down just so I can check it off. If you’re one of those people, get your mind around what you might want to do in the space as far as whether it be project management, management, organization, recruiting—all those sorts of things—but stay up on the technology. Do research. Know enough about the lingo.

Tee Ganbold 47:55
Listen to Automating The Chain.

Thomas Crihfield 47:57
Yeah, absolutely. You know what was funny when I entered this space? It’s alphabet soup, just like the military. You get all these analogies. I said AMR and AGV earlier and I had to explain what it is. You get all of these specialized audience lingo things. I would leave every meeting I was in and I would have these things written down and I would go to Google and I would Google search them, and sometimes I couldn’t find them. So then I would find the smartest person in the organization, I’d say, “Hey, somebody said ‘goods to person.’ What does that mean?” Things like that, so don’t be afraid to get the lingo, write it down, and then go research. I used goods to person as an example, but it was probably something even more abstract than that, or something that maybe I misunderstood or miss wrote it down and couldn’t get the spelling correct. But nonetheless, don’t be afraid to research this stuff. You just need to know the language and then have a skill set that correlates. And I’m not saying that automation is going to get rid of everything that is manual or just repetitive because there are some things that are very, very difficult. The aim is to give everybody that next-tier job so you’re not doing a mundane task. I always tell myself that my job is to make sure that people are doing things more safely than I’m automating things that could hurt them or injure them. And in essence, you can. I also like to get rid of the things that don’t let people be creative and be a human in the end. Have a mind of your own and not just be a cog in a belt. So when you start thinking about roles that you could potentially do, definitely look into the things that fit who you are, don’t just try to fit in. You don’t have to be the robot tech or the designer or the builder. You can interface in many ways. There will always need to be somebody to make sure the robot still works.

Tee Ganbold 49:56
100%.

Thomas Crihfield 49:57
That’s what’s beautiful about it.

Tee Ganbold 49:59
Thomas, I just want to say this is our first Automating The Chain bar—or pub, we say in UK—session. I am so, so happy we did this. I really am so happy and I think that the world needs this. I think the world needs someone who can tell a story and understands the history and understands the industry to communicate this and someone like me who is not afraid to ask the basics. I remember I asked what robots are as a service. Obviously, coming from the SAS world, it sounds similar, but it’s out of context. I didn’t know, so I’m happy for those who are willing and interested in learning to ask those questions.

Thomas Crihfield 50:46
Thank you, Tee Ganbold for giving me a platform to brain dump. It’s always best to share knowledge and to continue growing the industry that I live in and love. I appreciate the platform and the chat. Let’s do it again.

Tee Ganbold 51:01
Thank you so much, Thomas.

Thomas Crihfield 51:03
Thank you.

Tee Ganbold 51:05
Thanks so much for listening! If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please leave us a review and let us know what you liked. To follow along with future episodes, be sure to subscribe on the podcast platform of your choice, or head over to AutomatingTheChain.com for the latest updates. Until next time!