The immediacy of the web and social networks has turned up the heat on the notoriously brutal big-city tabloid wars. Reporters are fighting harder than ever to be the first to break the news on which nightclub a certain NBA player was seen at last night, or be first to undress a local official who was caught with his hand in the town’s kitty.
But technology magazines like Mechanical Engineering are usually spared such excitement. We certainly aim to be the first to spot technology trends, but not necessarily to break news. Our editors’ unique lens helps them analyze the impact of technology in ways that other publications don’t. Nonetheless, it’s always great to run an article in the magazine and then see a similar story appear a few weeks later in a newspaper, a consumer magazine, or a business-to-business publication. This happens more frequently than you might suspect. Sometimes it’s coincidence, but we prefer to believe that they read it here first.
Then there are instances like what happened with our “Work Buddies” article in this issue. When I was proofreading Alan Brown’s article on collaborative robots that work side-by-side with humans, I spotted a similar article on the front page of the business section of that day’s The New York Times. The newspaper called the article, “A Softer Side of Robotics.” A day later, The Wall Street Journal’s front page had yet another similar article. This one headlined: “Factory Workers Warm Up to Their Mechanical Colleagues.”
My first thought was: We got scooped! Now, as I sit here in front of my keyboard composing this month’s column, I glance over to today’s Wall Street Journal and I see yet another related front-page story. This one is about a robotics competition featuring automatons that don’t just interact with humans; they also mix cocktails. ThinBot, for example, is four feet tall, has flashing lights, and makes 17 tasty drinks.
We’ve been covering developments in robotics technology and the convergence of robots and humans for decades. Other publications have too, and now the general media have realized the importance of covering robots in some depth. Great robotics stories abound and non-technologists should know what’s around the corner—if not the technical details that engineers are interested in.
One of Brown’s inspirations for the article came on a trip he and I took a few months ago to a Caterpillar plant in Clayton, N.C. CAT has been using state-of-the-art robotic systems for some time and it was clear to us that the interaction between robots and humans has gotten tighter and tighter.
Even though much of our visit to the CAT plant was “off-the-record” due to the proprietary nature of the systems they employ, Brown found other companies that would share anecdotes on how their robots mingle with employees. In researching the article, he convinced Universal Robots to bring one of its robots to our offices so we could, literally, shake hands and interact.
Having robots deftly work side-by-side in assembly and manufacturing plants is a major step forward in factory automation. It’s also interesting to observe how comfortable human workers have become working alongside the robots.
But because I don’t work on a shop floor, I’d rather have one of the cocktail-mixing robots greet me when I get home, especially on days we get scooped by another magazine. Maker’s Mark Manhattan up, ThinBot; stirred, not shaken—and don’t forget the bitters.