Focus on the Workforce: Manufacturing the American Robot with Local Talent
The future can be made a place where young people dream of becoming science and technology heroes. That statement is the vision of US FIRST founder Dean Kamen, whose organization has excited youth across the nation into science and technology careers through FIRST Robotic Competitions. Kids start as young as 9 years old with LEGO robot leagues and progress to national competitions at the high school level, all the while receiving invaluable mentoring from manufacturing professionals.
The competitions have helped with one constant issue that concerns leaders in manufacturing, which is, "Where and how are we going to find tomorrow's talent?" Robotic competitions allow youth to innovate and develop skills alongside mentoring technology professionals. These robotic competitions have become a crossroad for upcoming talent, academia, and the manufacturing industry. Everyone involved sculpts tomorrow's workforce.
Kevin Sevcik is a 29-year-old project manager who was born and raised in Houston, TX. He's the son of an electrical engineer whose father was an electrician and shop teacher. In middle school, the Sevciks purchased their first computer for Kevin from a thrift store. The make and model was a PC Junior, a generally unpopular computer. Even though his family was always a little behind the times on computers, it was good enough for Kevin.
Shortly thereafter, he subscribed to a computer programming magazine and quickly began writing his first programs. It was during this time that Sevcik realized he wanted to do something with computers, and began focusing on science and math in school.
Through his mother's community outreach involvement with engineers in Houston, Kevin learned of a local high school called the High School for Engineering Professions. As a freshman at HSEP, he took catch-all engineering classes that included mechanical design exercises like building oil derricks from plastic straws.
Still focused on computers, Kevin took computer science electives. His teacher initiated HSEP's first participation in robot competitions through Texas Best Robotics, an organization similar to US FIRST. The next year HESP added US FIRST to their competition circuit. Kevin dove into the programming of his team's robot and was also on the animation team that drew 3-D models of robots and animated them.
Kevin graduated valedictorian, a national merit scholar finalist, and earned a scholarship to Texas A&M where he began a computer engineering degree. During his college career Kevin would return to Houston on weekends to mentor his former high school robotics team.
In his mentor role, the FIRST robotics competitions became a catalyst for Kevin as he realized he wanted a career that meshed computer programming and the mechanical side of robots. Subsequently, Kevin changed his major to mechanical engineering with a focus on motion controls. He tied his previous computer courses into a minor in computer science.
Upon graduating from Texas A&M, Kevin enrolled at Rice University as a grad student, where he furthered his interest in robotics by studying Haptics, or force-feedback motion controls. He continued mentoring in US FIRST and was eventually introduced to ARC Specialties president Dan Allford, who was a sponsor for local high school robot teams. ARC Specialties designs and builds automated manufacturing systems, and is always looking for smart Americans to build American robots. The company has been welding parts in multiple industries for over 25 years. Allford would allow local high school teams from Houston access to his facility to build robots, and he would frequent competitions to add final touches to the teams' robots.
Allford pegged Kevin for his programming skills, and when Kevin's motivation for grad studies turned to eagerness to begin a career, Allford offered him a job as an assistant project manager.
Project managers at ARC Specialties generally have a strong background in programming, and Kevin quickly began learning how to program PLC controls under Sr. Project Manager John Martin.
Kevin was primed for PLC ladder logic programming through his background in programming US FIRST robots with a version of C language. The two computer languages share a similar tight-loop structure where every line of code is executed each few milliseconds. This structure allows machines to respond very quickly. Every time the programmer reviews the code, it is changed based on new input and previous actions.
The project managers at ARC Specialties taught Kevin the ARC philosophy on how machines are built and how electronic panels are laid out. Kevin also began writing in Visual Basic to create operator interfaces for systems by learning from previously generated code.
To help him assimilate and develop in the real world of engineering, Kevin was essentially told, "Here is a project. Now make it work." His first two projects to manage were two units of the ARC-08G Plasma ARC Gouging System. The machine uses an electric plasma arc to remove hardfacing material from the outer diameter of a tool joint, so that it can be reused and resurfaced with new hardfacing.
While the projects did not offer Kevin another chance to program, he was allowed his first chance to apply his experience as a robotics team mentor in learning the complexities of organizing a project and getting machines built on time.
Soon after, Allford sent Kevin to Delta Tau System's PMAC School to learn how to program multiaxis positioning control systems.
With PMAC programming in his toolkit, Kevin volunteered for an upcoming project at work that would test some of the coordinated motion and inverse kinematics knowledge he acquired in his brief stint at Rice.
The project required the complex coordination of four axes of motion between a manipulator and a positioner while a torch performed a continuous submerged arc welding process on the inner surface of a blowout preventer, or BOP. BOPs are safety-critical valves used in the oil industry to prevent devastating failures in deep subsea systems. BOPs made oil well gushers a thing of the past. Therefore, utmost precision was crucial to the success of the project.
The submerged arc welding, or SAW, process requested for the project is renowned for its high deposition rates. While SAW is not a terribly new process, the automated motion control Kevin was signing himself up for had never been accomplished at such a high level of sophistication.
The project required more intense math than strictly common because Kevin needed to work out equations so that the non-tilting and non-rotating slides of the manipulator that positioned the SAW torch would coordinate with a rotating, tilted positioner that held the BOP.
The axes of motion to control were as follows:
- X-axis horizontal cross slide for the SAW torch on the manipulator.
- Z-axis vertical cross slide for the SAW torch on the manipulator.
- Y-axis travel carriage that adjusted the manipulator's distance from the BOP.
- B-axis rotation of the positioner holding the BOP.
In addition to the four axes of motion, Kevin needed to account for two additional adjustment axes:
- The squaring of the positioner's location with respect to the manipulator's location.
- The degree of tilt used on the positioner as it rotated the BOP.
The positioner needed to rotate with a tilt of 10° to facilitate the removal of flux. Each equation, coupled with 3-D curve fitting, was programmed into the PMAC. Finally, Kevin incorporated a Lincoln Electric Powerwave 1000 into the system to provide pulsed power to further maximize the deposition rate. The result was an automated repair process on a BOP that completed in 7 hr what once took over an entire week.
Looking to the future, resources are becoming more scarce and expensive while, demand continues to increase. Whatever can be done to decrease production costs would greatly benefit manufacturing. Automation can bring down those costs by upping productivity. Youth involvement in robotic competitions, while seemingly all fun and games, is really a long audition that prepares future professionals in science and technology.
This article was first published in the September 2009 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.