Robots bring science to life

This week I attended a media and analyst day at the Boston headquarters of software company PTC. We witnessed a compelling full-day presentation of Windchill, PTC‘s product lifecycle management (PLM) software.

PLM software enables products to be designed, simulated and simultaneously viewed by multiple departments of companies and through supply chain partners, so the effect of product variants can be tested simultaneously by all parties in collaboration, and their effect at stages through the product lifecycle measured. PLM is a growth market and more SME businesses are seeing its value: in the UK alone, PTC reports a 52% increase in year-on-year sales of Windchill products.

Despite a tough 2009 for the whole PLM market, PTC was very bullish about Windchill’s prospects for taking a global leadership position in PLM, and it claims its global PLM business grew 137% year-on-year in 2009/10. Windchill is targeting 20% sustainable earnings growth in 2010 and beyond, which would require growth at double today’s market rates.

That’s ambitious, from a European perspective, in what cannot yet be described as a global economic recovery. Software companies and analysts are focusing their efforts on growth in PLM, as no-one expects the 3D CAD market, now very mature in terms of seats, to see such growth.

PTC punctuated its presentation with client testimonials, including a live audio presentation from Phil Halsey, VP Engineering at BAE Systems Global Tactical Systems in Sealy, Texas, and construction company Komatsu. One presentation really struck a chord: the Newton Ligerbots FIRST Robotics team. Who? Quite. In the grand scheme of the potential of PLM to big business, this team of robot-building school children and their mentors are mere minnows. But for me it had the strongest impact, because it demonstrated that this collaborative software can help kids engage with science and maths and bring corporations into educational projects. And all this while having a lot of fun.

FIRST — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — is a not-for-profit public charity established in 1989 by Dean Kamen, an American inventor and entrepreneur who invented the Segway, the two-wheeled, gyroscopically-balanced human transporter. FIRST’s mission statement is:

“To inspire young people to be science and technology leaders, by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.”

You may remember Robot Wars, the quirky TV show hosted by Craig Charles featuring teams of engineers, physics teachers and garden shed-nerds smashing each others‘ homemade robots to pieces. It ran from 1997 to 2004 and, perhaps surprisingly, was a big hit, regularly securing several million viewers. 155 episodes were produced in total, and the show was seen in 26 countries. And let’s not forget The Great Egg Race, presented by quintessential mad scientist Prof. Heinz Woolf, who had kids in the 1980s building weird and wonderful contraptions with the sole purpose of moving an egg across an elaborate assault course made of paper and glue. Eggstraordinary what gets on TV.

A FIRST for the UK

FIRST is like Robot Wars for schoolkids, minus the pugilism, and plus a healthy injection of what Paige Grody of Newton North High School, a drive team member for the Ligerbots, calls gracious professionalism. This is the ethos of FIRST – compete to win but help each other, and extend help and encouragement to your competitors. What an inspiration for aspiring young engineers, but also for all children who can conceive, design, manufacture and deliver a project that puts maths, physics and technology in action.

Paige and her team – programmer and mechanical designer Elie Glik, a mechanical engineer in the making if ever there was one; Hasith Vidanamdura, programmer, and Ruthie Allard, safety captain, all of Newton South High School – presented their project using PTC Windchill and Wildfire, the CAD programme, driving the beautifully-made if not complete robot by remote control in front of a captivated audience of analysts and journos. Bear in mind these guys are 16 years old.

Dean Kamen’s brainchild has blossomed since humble beginnings in 1992 and now boasts over 213,000 participants who are six to 18 years old, and 90,000 adult mentors, who are from sponsor companies, teachers and parents. The nationwide competition, which is televised in massive studios, is not for the faint-hearted: there are hundreds of teams, who are given just six weeks to design and build their robot to fulfill a very specific function (the 2010 competition, Breakaway, involves scoring goals with soccer balls while disarming your opponents). There are control system manuals, hardware documentation, software and support aids to download, read, understand and apply. It hit home how important projects like FIRST should be to the UK, as it grapples with an economy short on engineers and manufacturers, and in urgent need of generating interest in science-centric careers.

FIRST was introduced to the UK at the Farnborough International Air Show in 2008, sponsored by BAE Systems. Since then, the UK franchise has gone rather quiet, but a spokesman for FIRST US says there are are two UK teams which compete in a European tournament. Surely now is the time for a partnership of companies to kick-start a UK franchise with conviction, and get this great initiative, or one of similar rationale, off the ground.

In March this year, Manchester will host the The Big Bang: UK Young Scientists’ and Engineers’ Fair, an annual celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). The Fair explores the wonders of STEM, seeking to capture the imagination of children at an age when they have career choice. Paul Jackson, chief executive of EngineeringUK who is managing the event, says: “We believe The Fair will be the biggest, single celebration of science and engineering in the UK, with more than 15,000 people already registered to attend. For more on the Big Bang, see:www.themanufacturer.com/uk/content/10134/Paul_Jackson_on_investing_for_the_future

If the UK’s government, education system and industry are really serious about children taking STEM subjects beyond school, they must support events like the Big Bang and FIRST. A ramped-up FIRST UK will make STEM more visible and tangible to young people and assist schools‘ efforts in showing children that careers in science actually exist and can also be fun, collaborative and rewarding. And they can kick some robot ass at the same time.

PLM software like PTC’s Windchill and Siemens PLM’s Teamcenter, meanwhile, will help both companies and these collaborative projects to foresee how their carefully-designed products will work in the real world before going through expensive physical prototypes, and seems to be now at the vanguard of manufacturing IT.

Source: The Manufacturer

For an overview of FIRST, see:

www.usfirst.org/aboutus/content.aspx?id=160

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