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Twenty women making their mark in robotics & automation

Ilene Wolff
By Ilene Wolff Contributing Editor, SME Media

One woman set up the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision—the world’s first such center—and then led efforts to create Australia’s first Robotics Roadmap. One co-founded a robot vacuum cleaner company and changed housework forever. Another, in Stockholm, is working with the United Nations in disease and natural disaster response. Yet another is helping close the skills gap in manufacturing. If there is a common thread found in the women Smart Manufacturing identified as making their mark in robotics and automation, it is a heightened awareness of the impact humans have on the planet without trying, as well as the positive impact we can have with concerted efforts. They see robots and drones as Jills of all trades that serve as helpful companions in education, health care and aging, as “eyes” that open new worlds in ocean depths, as “positive-impact devices” and as what (when paired with other automation technology) can enable indoor farming and “sustain the things we care about.” The 20 women profiled here are helping create a better world. On behalf of humanity, the magazine thanks them for their hard work, sharp minds and true grit. Because community building is so important, we are thrilled to see that Amy Elliott, Gillan Hawkes, Elena Messina, Roberta Nelson Shea and Nicole Renee Williams are members of SME.

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Jade Le Maître
Emerging Technologies Leader

Le Maître was inspired to become an engineer while reading “The Mysterious Island,” a Jules Verne tale of American Civil War escapees who used teamwork, scientific knowledge, engineering and perseverance to build a colony from scratch on an uncharted Pacific island. “This was an interesting metaphor of how people are able to change the world and make it a better place by engineering new devices,” she said. Making the world better is a theme that permeates her thinking: “I strongly believe that as engineers, we have a moral obligation to change the world to make it a better place. As humans, by design, we have a negative impact on earth. Therefore, it is our duty to build things that may balance that. I believe that by focusing on Green IT, clean data centers, energy-efficient components, we can create positive-impact devices and make the world a better place.” Unfortunately, the first “positive-impact device” she built, a retail and hospitality robot named Heasy, lived a short life before a fire destroyed the business in October 2019.

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Nuzha Yakoob
Head of Technology & Innovation

Yakoob was inspired to pursue a career in robotics and automation by the Daleks, an extraterrestrial race from the British television program “Dr. Who,” and by R2-D2 and C-3PO from the “Star Wars” movies. “Since then, my fascination and curiosity have always steered me—through high school and beyond—in identifying and selecting subjects and courses that brought me closer and closer to understanding the workings of my childhood robotic heroes.” Having been in the field, she’s eager to dispel the thought that robotics and automation are fields only for men. “The skills required to be successful can be attained irrespective of what gender you are,” she said. Yakoob sees a role for herself and her robots beyond manufacturing, including health care, hospitality and farming: “I would like to contribute toward applying robotics in assistive technologies, such as smart prosthetics, in improving the quality of life for the increasingly growing senior population and applying robotics and automation in enabling indoor farming, making healthy, affordable food available to all.”

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Roberta Nelson Shea
Global Technical Compliance Officer
Universal Robots

Nelson Shea lives by advice that is helpful to anyone: Get involved in trade organizations. For her, becoming involved in developing standards for robotics safety provided terrific networking opportunities. Clearly a joiner, Nelson Shea is a lifetime member of SME—and enjoys benefits like “great conferences, networking, and speaking opportunities,” she said. Partly through her efforts, Nelson Shea said the United States took the lead on robot safety. “I was part of a team of people who deeply believed
that automation could be done in a safe way that would work well for the people interfacing with the equipment while having high productivity,” she said. “I believe that having a strong robot safety standard contributed to the success of the industrial robotics market.” There is more to come, she said, citing a quote from John Lizzi, executive director of robotics at GE Global Research. “We see robots, and specifically industrial robotics, as moving through three phases: robots as tools to robots as partners and, ultimately, to robots that sustain the things we care about.”

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Gillan Hawkes
VP of Product & Analytics
6 River Systems

Hawkes spotted the shift to people ordering online for home delivery early. She knew it would be a major growth area. That allowed her to “leverage my path to go into supply chain management, but traditional tactics weren’t exciting,” she said. “The innovation was happening in robotics and automation. I wanted to be a part of that.” Hawkes joined 6 River Systems (6RS) in 2018 and got to work improving its services and warehouse products. This made 6RS well positioned to support its customers when the pandemic hit. “I am proud to have contributed to not only improving efficiencies but maintaining safety in our customers’ workplaces and keeping the supply chain moving,” she said. Next, Hawkes would like to democratize robotics and automation in the marketplace. “If 6RS could have touchpoints in large fulfillment centers, shopping centers and even in small local businesses,” she said, “I would consider that a massive achievement.”

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Tessa Lau
Dusty Robotics

About eight years ago, Lau began looking for more impactful work. Inspired by a project at Willow Garage that enabled people with quadriplegia to program robots, Lau joined the robotics research lab for about a year and subsequently turned her professional attention to robots. She started a service robot company with several Willow alum and then established her own firm. “While I had spent my life up to that point developing software, I realized that robotics had immense potential to improve people’s lives on a daily basis,” she said. “Unlike software, which is confined to a screen, robots live out in the human world.” Today, Lau’s robots provide mistake-free, data-driven layout at construction sites that is derived from building information modeling software, improving productivity and the lives of workers, designers and engineers. “Our next milestone is truly scaling up our robotics product to get it on every commercial construction site in the U.S.,” she said. “Scaling a robotics product requires a different set of skills, and a different organization versus building the first prototype.”

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Melonee Wise
Fetch Robotics

Wise’s entry into the robotics industry was serendipitous. She joined a team sponsored by Willow Garage founder Scott Hassan building an autonomous vehicle for the DARPA Urban Challenge in 2007. After the vehicle did an autonomous lap around the parking lot of the robotics R&D firm, Hassan soon offered her a job. That kind of real-world demonstration echoes in Wise’s career accomplishment: building autonomous mobile robots at her company, Fetch Robotics, that function in factories and high-volume distribution centers. “In robotics, you can do almost anything one time in a lab and make a video of it,” she said. “The real challenge is making it work 24/7, with a 99.99 percent reliability rate. That’s what customers want, and that’s really hard to do.” Her advice to the next generation of female roboticists is to learn to program and join a startup. “Women have very difficult career paths in front of them, and they need to put themselves in environments where they have an opportunity to excel outside of regular corporate structures,” she said.

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Lisa Masciantonio
Chief Workforce Officer
Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing
(ARM) Institute

Masciantonio’s work focuses on closing the skills gap in manufacturing. Using ARM-determined competency building blocks, skills profiles and career pathways, she is working to create a nationwide system that matches the competencies and roles required by manufacturers to the education programs and career pathways of the workforce. With ARM’s system, students can determine where their strengths are and which capabilities they need to acquire for a successful career in manufacturing. The next step, to be delivered later this year, is to include capabilities to test and certify workers in robotic career pathways. “We will create mechanisms for creatively observing and testing their mastery of the competency building blocks, according to ARM’s Industry 4.0 Competency Framework,” she said. This will facilitate matching between the job seeker and employer. “It feels great knowing that the work we accomplish each day helps to strengthen the U.S. economy, serve our warfighters and bring our national manufacturing capabilities to higher levels of maturity,” she said.

Marie-Christine Caron
Senior Engineering Section Manager
GE Aviation (Global Robotics and Automation R&D Center)

Caron has worked and studied in French, English and Czech. But “impossible to automate” doesn’t seem to be in her lexicon. In fact, her team’s most recent accomplishment was a breakthrough in inspection and removing tedious tasks that others thought were impossible to automate. That recent achievement may help in her team’s goal of having all GE Aviation sites think of automation and robotics whenever they introduce a new part or process. That would accelerate their adoption and help maximize their potential impact. “We are involved in enabling the sites to reliably and efficiently build and maintain engine components using the latest technology, and we are opening up new possibilities for engineering to refine their designs,” she said. “Having the sentiment that we are contributing to the advancement of the technology that has an impact on so many people is very rewarding.” Looking ahead, she has great hope for AI. “It will solve complex issues that are preventing automation and robotics from being suited for the challenges,” she said.

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Fritzi Moneza
Senior Principal Manufacturing
Engineer, Advanced Automation
Northrop Grumman

Moneza is so fascinated by machines that she finds her thrills by scrutinizing the workings of her ride at Universal Studios rather than passively enjoying it. “I try to look through the darkness and see what type of robot they are using and try to understand the rail and the projection systems that make the ride exciting,” she said. “It genuinely interests me, and I like seeing how things work.” Is it any wonder, then, that she sees new opportunities for automation in the aerospace industry for repetitive tasks like drilling, painting, composite fabrication and ultrasonic inspection? She also wants to see more automation in data collection and interpretation. “This will allow us to make informed decisions in a timely manner and make changes to design and processes where it is necessary,” she said. Even with her fervor for automation, she sees a downside in the workers left behind when machines become automated. “This is something that needs to be addressed so we can continue to compete and be at the cutting edge of manufacturing technology,” she said.

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Sue Keay
Queensland AI Hub

As a girl, Keay did not envision a career in tech—even though her family acquired their neighborhood’s first PC. Now, she wants to see a thriving and sustainable robotics industry in Australia. “This means not only supporting creators of robotics and robotics-related technologies but also supporting government and corporates to adopt robotics,” she said. “Robotics is part of the broader AI and technology sector and cannot succeed unless we have support for both AI and the tech sector more broadly.” Six years ago, she set up the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision, the world’s first such center. She led efforts to create Australia’s first Robotics Roadmap in 2018 and last year established a firm to represent the industry sector. In 2019, she made it her mission to bring the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing to Australia as the Hopper Down Under. She now leads her Australian state’s AI hub.

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Susanne Lauda
Director, Global Advanced Manufacturing Technology

Lauda’s career path demonstrates the value of internships. In high school, her math teacher encouraged her to become an engineer. But it wasn’t until she apprenticed for a diesel engine maker that the assembly line and CNC machines sparked her interest. “I went back to college a few years later. I was eager to become a manufacturing engineer,” she said. During her career at agriculture machinery and equipment maker AGCO, she led a small team of engineers that created a tool to allow manufacturing engineers at plants in the U.S., Italy and Brazil to collaborate remotely in creating a Manufacturing Bill of Materials, the Bill of Process and the electronic work instructions for a new harvesting combine. “Many steps within that tool are fully automated, and the concept reduced the planning efforts at the sites up to 80 percent,” she said. “The next big goal is to generate a true digital twin of our factories, by merging the virtual with the real operations, and collect smart data that can instantly be turned into higher productivity, safety and quality,” she said.

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Helen Greiner

When Greiner saw the original Star Wars movie in 1977, she was immediately smitten. The object of her interest was not Luke Skywalker or Han Solo; It was R2-D2. The girl who drew her inspiration from one of director George Lucas’ leading actor bots would grow up to be a pioneer in developing robots that can take over mundane or dangerous tasks from humans. She is now the CEO of a weed-controlling, solar-powered robot startup. She previously co-founded iRobot and co-designed its Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner. Roomba has captured about 20 percent of the North American vacuum market. Other Greiner accomplishments—the Packbot military robot and the persistent aerial reconnaissance and communications tethered drone system—have been credited with saving the lives of soldiers and civilians alike. Greiner predicts we will see robots taking over home maintenance jobs, such as lawn mowing, leaf collecting and snow removal. “I see continued adoption of robots, driving the virtuous cycle of invention, development and manufacture,” she said.

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Helena Samsioe
CEO and Founder
GLOBHE (Global Health)

Samsioe sees untapped potential in drones to help solve real-life challenges in natural disasters, disease outbreaks and other situations. For example, GLOBHE’s network of “crowddroning” pilots provide aerial images that, once analyzed, help track mosquito-breeding sites in Malawi for malaria-mitigation efforts. An advanced unmanned aerial vehicle pilot with a master’s degree in international disaster management, Samsioe cites as her company’s most significant accomplishments its work with the United Nations in disease and natural disaster response and a recently signed contract with a global telecom company. The telecom-related work is to inspect communication towers, helping to keep communities connected as a result. Clearly owning her own success, she said, “While many wait for ‘the future’ to happen, I tend to create the future and get partners and clients onboard the journey.” Her frustration is with progress that happens slowly. For example, she’s “pushing and waiting for ‘beyond visual line of sight’ (BVLOS) drone flights to become legal at scale so drones truly can provide additional value for societies.”

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Amy Elliott
Research Scientist
Oak Ridge National Laboratory

As an If/Then Ambassador for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Elliott is featured in original entertainment and media content. She was overall runner-up in “The Big Brain Theory’s” one-season run on the Discovery Channel. She was an on-camera science expert for the Science Channel’s “Outrageous Acts of Science.” And she was featured in a 2012 Wired article about a 3D-printing vending machine she and her team designed and configured while studying at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. The machine, DreamVendor, included four MakerBot Thing-o-Matic printers that printed users’ uploaded design files. “Of course, it being a first-generation design, there were several kinks in the system,” Elliott said. “However, it was a really fun project, and it proved the concept.” She has since earned her doctorate in mechanical engineering and wants to bring automation and robotics to additive manufacturing. “Even though the machines can build amazing things, there is still quite a lot of manual labor required after the part is built,” she said.

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Rosa Ciprian
Senior Electrical Engineer Lead
Alert Innovation

For Ciprian, working in robotics means solving an evolving, thought-provoking engineering problem. “It is always exciting because you’re constantly doing something new,” she said. “The field is very dynamic, which makes it fun.” It is also productive: She led the electrical design of an automated guided vehicle/industrial robot, which took a year from start to finish. Having fun at work is a bonus for her on top of being able to work in such a multidisciplinary field. “For example, the power architecture is tightly involved with the mechanical loads of the robot,” she said. “Also, losses, emissions, temperature profiles and communication robustness are all interrelated. Moreover, it is a field where I can see our contributions to humankind happening in real time.” The future of industry will include fleets of robots working collaboratively with humans, she believes, with AI playing a more involved role in tasking. Her advice to other female engineers is to be generous: Socialize your achievements and those of your female colleagues, she said.

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Elena Messina
Group Leader, Manipulation & Mobility Systems

Messina is rooted in measurement science and its role in driving research and engineering—and from there her vision for the future of robotics takes off. She wants to see the paradigm of robots as partners and assistants to humans extended and expanded versus seeing them as worker replacements. For this to happen, the world needs more intuitive interaction mechanisms for programming, coordination and communicating status, as well as greater intelligence and dexterity on the part of robots. “Robots will no longer need to be taught every move, but rather can be instructed at a high level, similar to how humans who collaborate together agree on a joint task,” she said. “Similarly, robots will be able to execute their tasks either independently, able to detect changes or failures and recover from them on their own, or, if working jointly with humans, able to safely perform the tasks through observing the human’s status, understanding verbal and non-verbal cues.” The ultimate result will be the democratization of the use of robotics among enterprises, she said.

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Christine Spiten
Blueye Robotics

When she had two years left to finish her master’s in engineering and technology management, Spiten began taking extra courses in entrepreneurship and robotics to figure out where she was headed career-wise. “I found the [master’s degree] curriculum to have too little hands-on training,” she said. “How would I know what to specialize in without trying out, and applying theory onto, real problems?” She enrolled in a program that included an internship with a startup making underwater drone kits. She wrote her thesis on environmental ocean monitoring with the use of drones, and her career took shape. “I started Blueye Robotics with three co-founders, to make the ocean available in new ways—and to everyone—driven by the belief that you only take care of what you know and care about,” she said. She is now advising the World Wildlife Fund on ocean plastics. “As Sir David Attenborough once told me,” she said, “it’s not about whether we will survive, but what kind of world we will survive in.”

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Nicole Renee Williams
Thermoplastic Composite Materials and Process Manager
The Boeing Co.

Having earned a master’s in manufacturing engineering, Williams has a wealth of book knowledge. But since at least her undergrad years, her education also included practical experience. It was some of that experience, specifically programming a robot in V++ to perform a simple shape-sorting task, that got Williams her first job at Boeing and ignited her passion for working with robotic and automation systems. “My first job was programming and supporting a gantry robot doing automated fiber placement that used an Adept [Controls] control,” she said. “This was very exciting.” Although her work focuses on controlling robots, she’s also focused on people, including colleagues and the next generation of techies. She has participated in many leadership programs at Boeing, including the Employee Mentoring and Robotics Club. Outside of work, she’s been a FIRST Robotics Competition volunteer for 10 years. Her message to girls in FIRST is to get involved early, stay active and embrace every learning opportunity. “It’s the hardest fun you’ll ever have,” she said.

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Cynthia Breazeal
Professor and Associate Director
MIT Media Lab

Breazeal once dreamed of being an astronaut. But she instead chose academia where she “could continue to push the envelope in robotics and AI research.” Her work is about autonomous robots as a ubiquitous, human-centered technology. “I want to contribute the reality of a robot in every home that delivers meaningful value and delight to families,” she said. Her biggest accomplishment to date is Jibo, the first social robot featured on the cover of Time. Jibo has since been acquired by another firm. “There is tremendous opportunity for social robots as personalized, helpful companions in education, healthcare, aging and wellness. These are areas where emotional engagement, humanized social support and decision support in a personalized way could help address challenges of scalable, affordable, effective interventions for human users that can augment and extend what human professionals provide,” she said.

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Leah Curry
Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Indiana

Curry appeared headed for a career as a chemist, but as she worked in the lab, she realized fixing broken equipment was more to her liking than running analyses. So she returned to school for industrial electronics. “I was accepted into an internship program at a pharmaceutical nutritional company, which is how I began my career in manufacturing,” she said. “I have been exposed to various types of automation, including robotics, and have enjoyed working in manufacturing for all of my career.” At the pharmaceutical nutritional company, Curry and her team automated hard-wired relay circuitry to PLC systems. This helped improve troubleshooting and reduced repair time. “It was amazing to be part of what was emerging technology at the time,” she said. The fun didn’t stop there. “At Toyota, we have teams working on AI and augmented reality to help improve efficiency and eliminate redundant and non-value-added work,” she said. “I believe this type of technology can be coupled with robots to improve the efficiency of work for employees.”

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