Saturday, April 15, 2017

IOT Asia 2017

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to be in IOT Asia 2017 (The International Exhibition & Conference on Internet of Things), held in Singapore Expo.

This year they covered may areas related to IOT: Smart Cities, wearables, industrial IOT, design applications, enablers, IoT Data Analytics, Cybersecurity and Robotics. With more than 70 speakers sharing different points of views about the present and future of IOT. I also was invited to give a lecture about the robotics in Spain and how through HISPAROB we are connecting Asia and Spain in the robotics area.

Alejandro Alonso Speaking at IOT Asia 2017

Also I was invited by SIAA and SingEx organization to be part of the panel of judges of the IOT Trailblazer Award, were G-Element won a well-deserved award for their product Nucleus, a 3D unified management system that interposes the real-time data avalanche of sensor networks with 3D building information to provide comprehensive situation awareness to premise managers. Also, Ambi Labs won a well-deserved award for their AmbiClimate indoor climate control applying Artificial Intelligence techniques. The awards were given by Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Foreign Affairs/Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation initiative.

In summary, IOT Asia 2017 was an interesting event, not only for the exhibition part, were we found innovative solutions, but also for the conferences, awards, and ambiance. My congratulations to the organization.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Interview for Robo Asia

One of the hats I wear is VicePresident of HISPAROB, a Professional Robotics Association from Spain. Recently I was interviewed by RoboAsia, the most important Robotics Magazine in Asia, about the connections we are establishing between Spain and Asia. Here you could find the interview:

What is your main role in HISPAROB? 

HISPAROB is the leading non profit Professional Robotics and Automation Association in Spain, with more than 60 members between companies, research centres and universities.
My main role as Vice President, living in Singapore is to represent the interests of these companies, research centres and universities in Asia, either as exporters or importers of technology, as well as facilitating them for potential collaborations and joint ventures with Asian companies.

What potentials do you see in Asia robotics industry?

Asia is where things are really happening nowadays in terms of robotics and automation. Huge manufacturing industries, enormous population, extensive need for automation. The big investors have their eyes on Asia. Loads of very creative companies are building innovative solutions, in an ecosystem were governments are investing great amounts of money to improve and automate operations. Japan announced recently the “Japan’s Robot Strategy”, to help the country adopt robotics solutions for elderly, disabled people, and production between others. South Korea has also announced recently a plan to invest 426$ million in the drones industry. Asia as a whole is really taking the lead in the automation and robotics sector.

What difficulties did Spanish Robotics companies encountered when they expand their business in Asia?

One of the main difficulties is the cultural difference and language. Although Singapore is a very open country to western relationships, China or Japan may be more difficult for western countries including Spain. The bureaucracy, the lack of people speaking English, and the sort of business relationships, more based on traditions and personal relationships are sometimes difficult to understand for Western countries in general.
Also with China there have been cases of infringement of foreign patents.
In terms of human resources, while western employees tend to delegate responsibility and have flexible lines of authority, Chinese workers are used to a more hierarchical structure with clearly defined roles. These differences may lead to tensions between western managers who prefer employees who take their own initiative, and Chinese staff who have been trained from a young age to always follow instructions from the managers.

How would you overcome these difficulties?

My goal is to help both sides, Spain and Asia, to connect. In order to do this efficiently I need to keep a deep respect and understanding to the local cultures and traditions of each country. Try to find the possible synergies between the companies, research centres and universities and help them as a facilitator, as well as in any additional consulting needs they may require from the technical point of view. 
Singapore is a great country to live for this purpose, due to its location, its multicultural and multilingual environment, the extremely low level of corruption (one of the lowest in the entire world), the security and the facility to travel throughout all Asia.

What are the benefits entitled to companies who join HISPAROB?

Although HISPAROB only accept Spanish companies and institutions as members, there is no impediment for Asian Companies to have professional relationships with Spanish companies through HISPAROB. On the contrary, this is what we are looking for. 
For Spanish companies and institutions, joining HISPAROB helps them to access the services to a synergistic professional network, with facilities to participate in national and international events. 

What are the current plans that you have to expand/build up HISPAROB?

At this moment we are opening relationships not only with Singapore as a gate to Asia, but also with UK through the British Embassy.

Past November I had the pleasure to represent HISPAROB, in the signing ceremony of a Memorandum Of Understanding (MOU) between HISPAROB and SIAA (Singapore Industrial Automation Association). The event took place in the Singapore International Robot Expo (SIRE).

Singapore Industrial Automation Association, SIAA is the leading hub for Automation, IOT and Robotics technologies, solutions & applications in Singapore. It also serves as a business catalyst in the APAC region.

The MOU signing is the starting point for a mutual collaboration focused on finding synergistic relationships between both countries. 

How do you think robots will impact the economy? 

Early 2016 Foxconn, the largest contract electronics manufacturer in the world, said it automated away 60,000 jobs in one of its factories, as part of an ongoing process to replace humans operations with robots. 

The massive usage of industrial and collaborative robots and automated systems will increase productivity and quality, replacing human force to some extent. A report, conducted by Deloitte and Oxford University, predict as many as 35% of jobs will be automated over the next two decades. It is not clear at this moment if this means an increase in unemployment or an increase in employment. IFR (International Federation of Robotics) and CE (European Commission) have analyzed the correlation between robotics adoption and unemployment based on the automobile industry sector in USA and found that although 80.000 new robots were installed between 2010 and 2015, 230.000 new jobs were created. The case of Germany is similar, with 13.000 new robots in the same period and 93.000 new employments.

Governments are investing a lot of money in the adoption of robotics and automation in the industry, but an important consideration should be to invest in the training and relocation of the replaced workers as well as on the acceptance, adoption and learning of the people, from the early education stages.

How would you predict robotics industry in next five years? 

Five years is nothing, at the same time it is a lot of time in terms of technology advances.  Five years ago almost we didn't see drones around and now there are really big players like DJI, competing very hard for the market.  Companies like 3DRobotics or GoPro are suffering seriously this tough "Drones war". Although drones per se are not robots, I predict they will become smarter and fully automated for several applications, being real decision taking flying robots. In the same way autonomous vehicles as cars, buses or trucks will start being used widely as is happening with Tesla and other. In the industrial field, collaborative robots will be the usual partners of workers in factories. 
Also, I foresee a continuous growth of other technologies that will benefit robotics, like cloud computing, big data, smart analytics, IOT, communications as well as smarter and more efficient human-machine interfaces and haptic systems.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Rapid prototyping is key to manufacturing success

You want to have a product in the market. You think it will really be successful and will work superb, but how could I produce it?

Well, there are lots of steps to follow in terms of market research, business plans, resources, funding, and so on. You could get a good idea on how to cover all that in my previous post: What is the key to get the successful product?

But let us see quickly here some steps to follow if your product has physical parts.

First draft design

Everything starts with a design, but I would recommend starting with a first draft design, not going to all final details. The reason is because it is good to have a quick prototype as soon as possible, to learn from it and get a better experience of the product, that may alter our design.

Build the first prototype

We need to have a first "quick & cheap" prototype as soon as possible. This prototype may be made of cardboard, wood, plastic, or any other material. 3D printers are really useful for that purpose. The idea is to get a physical 3D feeling from our senses. Touch it, see its aspect, form from different view angles, if it fits wherever it should, and in general the feel we get, and the potential production issues we may face.

Update design and Build prototype cycle

As a result of the previous step, we could go more in deep on the design details and subsequent prototype production. This cycle may repeat until we get a product that has the aesthetic design we want, the functionality it should have and the feel you want to get from it.

There are so many techniques nowadays to produce prototypes. Depending on the size of your company and product development department you may have only a FDM 3D printer or a more complete equipment. If you do not have the equipment, there are tons of companies offering prototyping services. Some of the machines and processes you may use are the following:
  • Additive manufacturing: This technique helps us produce pieces by adding material, that may be almost of any kind. Between these techniques, they are: (a) FDM (Fused deposition Modeling) that is the typical 3D printer using some sort of plastic, (b) Polyjet printing, that uses resin layers and cure using UV light. We could get even transparent pieces, (c) SLA (Stereolithography), that uses liquid resin and you could get very nice prototypes, (d) SLS (Selective Laser Sintering), that produce nylon and other materials layers by fusing nylon powder by a laser beam. Usually, it has a granulated surface like sugar and does not require adding supporting material, (e) DMLS (Direct metal laser sintering). This technique is very similar to the previous one, but using different sorts of metals and alloys, getting strong, fully functional pieces.
  • Subtractive manufacturing: This technique helps to produce pieces from blocks, by taking out material, like a sculptor. There are mainly CNC machines (mill and lathe) able to automatically build the piece from the design.
  • Injection molding: This is a very traditional technique, where you have a mold made typically out of resin, aluminum or steel, depending on the amount and type of pieces to produce by the injection of different materials in liquid form (usually fused)
  • Other: There are other combinations of techniques that may require using industrial robotic arms, bending machines, cutting machines (Plasma, Oxy fuel, Waterjet, Laser Cutting,...)

Final production

In summary what is done typically is to start producing the prototype by using FDM 3D printing technology (quick & cheap), test the size and look, refine the design, make better prototype until we get something apparently correct, go to injection molding using resin molds (cheap) and do functional testings. After it is ok, go to aluminum injection molding and produce few units for final testings and correct production issues. in fact, you could use the aluminum mold for the production of several hundreds even few thousands of units, depending on the material injected. Then go to still molds (expensive) for a full-scale production of millions of units (if needed)

I hope this helps to have a general idea of the process. Happy prototyping!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Requirements please!

I have seen it many times: One company hires another to do a project, after a while, they end up in court because the contracting party does not want to pay the contractor, arguing they didn't receive what expected, while the contractor say they did as agreed. Most of the times requirements are not adequately written, giving each company the freedom to create their own expectations, that may not match.

But, why this happens so frequently? There are a lot of factors that may make this happening. The most common are the following:

  • One of the parties is not interested in having clear requirements because they think this gives them the capacity to change things during the project or avoid specific compromises, as there is no written document.
  • The contracting party is not able to clearly define what they want or what they could expect.
  • There is no clear communication between parties, so each party has its own set of expectations taken for granted that may not match the expectations of the other party.
  • There is no adequate knowledge or compromise to do adequate requirements.

The reality is that having poor or no requirements are very bad practice for both parties. Both will end up losing money, time, credibility, or opportunities.

If you are developing a product or service for the market is the same story. Good requirements will help to make a good product or service, not losing track of what you are offering to the market.

Requirements Engineering is one of the processes of Systems Engineering, that is focused on defining, documenting and maintaining requirements. In the Waterfall Model, requirements engineering is presented as the first phase of the development process while Agile Methodologies, like Scrum, assume that requirements engineering continues through the lifetime of a system.

Basically, a requirement is a singular documented physical and functional need that a particular design, product or process must be able to perform. The systems engineer needs to carefully elicit requirements from users and stakeholders to ensure the product will meet their needs.

Fortunately, Requirements Engineering is a well standardized process by the International Organization for Standardization, under the standard ISO/IEC/IEEE 29148 Systems and software engineering - Life cycle processes - Requirements engineering.

It is crucial to ensure the requirements are correctly defined and here I will mention some key characteristics of good requirements from INCOSE (International Council on Systems Engineering) [1]

  • Necessary: State only what is determined to be necessary for achieving the client’s mission within regulatory constraints. These statements are derived through analytical means to the depth necessary for design, procurement, implementation and verification.
  • Clear: Convey what must be achieved in a manner that can be understood by those who are expected to implement the requirement, without having to ask the author what was meant.
  • Achievable: Confirm with the implementer that the requirement can be affordably achieved either by previously developed means, or within a reasonable period of development.
  • Traceable: Ensure derived requirements can be traced to a user need or a higher-level specification, and to a supporting analytical basis. Derived requirements need to also trace to the implementing item.
  • Verifiable: Requirements must be stated in a manner that compliance can be objectively confirmed. Typical methods of confirmation include analysis, inspection, demonstration and test.
  • Complete: A set of requirements needs to be complete, such that if all are met then the resulting system will successfully achieve the client’s need for the system. In addition, the needs of other stakeholders will be addressed to the agreed extent, and the regulations will be met.
  • Implementation Free: State what is required and how well it needs to be done without bias for how it will be done. The design team should be allowed to choose the best means of accomplishing the requirements. This helps to provide stable requirements and to control cost.

Requirements Engineering is not an easy task, but crucial. Is the origin of a lot of work and investments. It could be key for successful results or a terrible disaster. Let us pay the adequate attention to this process.

[1] Managing Requirements for Design. INCOSE Infrastructure Working Group
[3] Wikipedia

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Infinium Robotics. Flying robots

Infinium Robotics is the company where I work as Chief Technology Officer in Singapore. We do interesting things in this company mainly in aerial robotics, that I would like to share with you as far as I can, not unveiling our intellectual property.

Infinium Robotics is well known in Singapore as the first company able to use autonomous drones to serve food & beverages in restaurants, in a GNSS-denied environment (indoors). The solution is called Infinium-Serve. For that solution, Infinium Robotics not only uses its own developed drone platform and autopilot with adaptive controllers but also a very specific onboard computer vision system, that allows the drone to fly properly indoors in a safe way.

But this is not the only thing this company does. The expertise in sensors, control, trajectory planning and swarm robotics, allowed it to be one of the very first companies able to produce drone shows in the world, called Infinium-Waders, were multiple drones fly describing nice colorful moving figures up in the air, either indoors or outdoors. It is key in this case the automated coordinated trajectory planning, to prevent collisions between the drones while moving.

And the last, but not least is the automated solution for warehouses, called Infinium-Scan, where a complex system allows flying sensors move through a warehouse to do cycle-count stock-taking, also called physical inventory. The system is able to move autonomously in a GNSS-denied environment using different solutions, mainly based on computer vision, and LIDAR technology. The system could identify the goods available in the different racking levels through the aisles, to update de WMS (Warehouse Management System) inventory database. This automated system could reduce operating costs easily as well as increase the database reliability.

It is interesting to watch the following interview with CNBC about the company and our solutions.

If you could not see the video, access this LINK

If you are interested in knowing more about automation in warehousing industry, you could read my previous post HERE

Monday, January 30, 2017

Hardware Technology Opportunities & Challenges

Some weeks ago I participated in a panel discussion at the IEEE HardTech Summit Singapore, about Hardware Technology Opportunities & Challenges for entrepreneurs, both from the technical side and from the financing side.

The panel was moderated by Mohan Belani, Co-Founder & CEO at e27 and the other panelist with me were Kelving Ong, CEO at Focustech Ventures and Alexa Zotova, Principal at Ruvento Ventures.

Although I was there as CTO of Infinium Robotics Singapore, my past experience as founder of my own company in Spain, Quark Robotics, gave me the opportunity to deeply enjoy the moment with the other panelists, more from the investors' side.

Here are some key ideas from the panel, that I would like to share:

  • There are great opportunities for Hardtech companies in the markets of Smart Cities, IOT, Robotics & Automation, Drones solutions, and Industry 4.0 (Read my posts about IOT and Robotics in Smart Cities and Drones Market in figures for more detail)
  • In the case of Singapore, the Government created the National Robotics Programme (NRP), a funding programme of more than $450 million to support SMEs over the next three years. A great opportunity indeed.
  • In the case of small startups, there are some rules of thumb that should be considered when trying to get investors: (a) Getting a first financing from family & friends is always something that external investors will consider as an important commitment.  (b) You could not go to find investors with just an idea. you need to have a prototype, a proof of concept to make them feel confident on you. (c) Obviously a Business Plan, but with considering three scenarios: Optimistic, pessimistic and conservative, and also a Plan-B in case things goes wrong. (d) your product/service should be scalable, (e) You should demonstrate that you are focused on the market. Having agreements with future potential customers to help define and validate the product/service is a valuable point.
  • Where to find mentors for an entrepreneur: There are several sources (a) other entrepreneurs, preferably with at least 2 years of experience, either if they succeeded or not, (b) investors (c) potential customers, (d) Business Development professionals, who could share their knowledge of the market.
  • There are several challenges that hardware startups usually miss out or don’t look at early on: (a) Sometimes they are very optimistic and very technical focused (not market) (b) R&D takes time and money that commonly are not properly considered. (c) the Integration part is the key technical issue in any tech startup. Sometimes, this point is not even considered.
  • A jump from a prototype to a final product (industrialization phase) is a serious step. The prototype could fail, the product not. There are also regulations and certifications (Like CE, FCC,...), usability aspects and even the design of the box, manuals, support,... that sometimes are nor adequately considered, mainly due to lack of knowledge or experience in this critical phase.
You may find more interesting points in my previous post: What is the key to get the successful product?

Friday, January 27, 2017

Robots to the museum

Robotics is something I love since I was 10 years old. I worked in a lot of robots during my life. Some of them just for fun, and some of them for professional purpose, but I consider all of them as part of my life. Therefore it was really nice for me to agree with The Robot Museum of Madrid (Spain/Europe) to show some of my robots there as part of their permanent exhibition. 

Some of them, as shown in the picture above are:

  • SAM, a humanoid robot the size of a man, that could interact with people, talk in different languages and use computer vision to follow objects. Built in 2010.
  • Melanie-III, a walking hexapod robot able to walk on rough terrain and carry a payload 4 times its own weight (4Kg), like insects do. This robot won the Hispabot National price in 2004 and was used for research and development, being object of a publication in Springer 2005
  • Retrobot, A dancing robot I built just for fun along with my nephew Manuel. The goal of the project was to build a robot from spare parts of the 80's and 90's that could reproduce music from those years, and dance while shaking a maraca with its left arm, while extending its right arm to ask you for some money. Built in 2011.

Also, the museum will expose some other robots from my collection, including old robot arms and even figures of robots from SciFi movies.

It is nice to see that those robots will be available to the public in such a beautiful place.

The Robot Museum. Madrid