Vecna Robotics & Mass Robotics: Daniel Theobald

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Daniel Theobald of Vecna and Mass Robotics returns to share more of his story, and common misconceptions about the robotics field.

Danny:

Hello, and welcome to today’s IndustrialSage Executive Series interview. I am joined by the CEO and founder of Vecna Robotics, and also the co-founder and president of Mass Robotics, Daniel Theobald. Daniel, thank you so much for joining me today on IndustrialSage.

Daniel:

My pleasure.

Danny:

So before we jump into everything here, I would love for you, if you could just give me a little introduction about who Vecna Robotics is and Mass Robotics. What do you guys do? Two organizations that’s got, some pretty cool stuff you got going on there. But what do you guys do?

Daniel:

Well, Vecna Robotics is the world leader in what I would call high-capacity AMRs, so autonomous mobile robots that move large items, pallets, what are often referred to as non-conveyables, so kayaks, tires, mattresses, exercise machines, all these type of things that our modern ecommerce society has going through shipping that used to be handled differently. So we are able to fully automate the movement of materials in a facility, taking them from point A to point B safely, reliably. And really exciting, the focus of the company is not just around these types of robots but also around the idea of, how do we really optimize the overall end-to-end workflow? One of the key learnings we had early on is that robots are just as capable of wasting time as human workers if not tasked effectively. So just trying to insert a robot into an existing process might not achieve the kind of return on investment a customer is looking for. So a big focus of ours through our pivotal software is around this idea of making sure that you’ve got the right resource in the right place at the right time and really optimizing the entire workflow through a facility rather than just trying to insert a robot into a particular spot. So that’s sort of the headlines of Vecna Robotics.

One of the unique things about Vecna Robotics is that we are very active in the area of social responsibility. From the very beginning, we have paid our employees to spend approximately 10% of their workweek contributing to community service in our local and international communities. Well, several years ago, myself and a number of colleagues here realized that there was a need for an organization to really help move forward the adoption of autonomous systems in the industry in a more practical way. And there are a number of obstacles that were preventing effective adoption of these types of autonomous solutions. So we used our community service time at Vecna to band together with others in the industry and co-found this organization called Mass Robotics. Mass Robotics is one of the largest, fastest-growing industry associations for robotics, IoT-connected devices, and their mission is, essentially, to facilitate the adoption of this technology by connecting innovators and end-users and investors and equipment providers, sensor providers, in more effective conversations and also through working to establish practical interoperability standards that can help ease the adoption of these type of solutions, as well. I think the short version of that is that the robotics industry is really where the computer industry was several decades ago, where the mobile industry was a couple of decades ago. There’s a lot of fragmentation, a lot of different people out there trying to build robotics solutions, but the standards and the interoperability aren’t quite there yet to support easy adoption, plug-and-play adoption of this. And so those are some of the things that we’re really focusing on.

Danny:

Yeah, absolutely, and I can only imagine that, because of recent events, just really the demand, the increase in demand for efficiency and technology solutions and innovation across the board but specifically in supply chain and material handling has just gone through the roof.

Daniel:

Yeah, and I would suggest that really what we’re seeing as a big impact of this pandemic and some of the changes happening worldwide is that there’s an increased appetite for flexibility. Automation can take many, many forms, and there’s what I would classify as very rigid and fixed automation and, then, there is flexible automation which is the next generation of rapidly adaptable automation. And the point of that is that customers realize that planning for the future is harder than ever now. They don’t know what’s going to happen. It used to be that you could design a warehouse or a factory and expect it to operate essentially as designed for about a decade. That world is long gone now. And many of our customers have trouble predicting what’s going to be happening six months from now, much less five or ten years from now. So this has caused a real tectonic shift in terms of the type of automation people are looking for. They don’t want big, built-in solutions that lock them into a particular process or throughput forever. They want to adopt solutions that can evolve and change rapidly with them as their business needs evolve and change.

Danny:

Yeah, and I think that’s a very interesting point. Do you think that, as far as the need for flexibility, do you think that was something that was already happening that was on the horizon before the pandemic? Or do you think that, is that something completely new, or has it just been accelerated?

Daniel:

I think it’s been accelerated. Certainly, this has been our thesis from the beginning. And I think that thesis has just been strengthened significantly by this. The trend in technology is always towards flexibility. Modern computer technology, modern sensors, et cetera have really allowed this to happen. It used to be, you’d go all the way back to the loom workers, the Luddites, and some of the first automation that came into the human consciousness in terms of humans, jobs, technology, how does this all work? It was really very specifically-built automation. You would build a machine that was capable of doing one thing and doing that repeatedly again and again and again and again. That’s what led us to the industrial revolution. That’s what led us to mass production.

Danny:

Sale, yeah.

Daniel:

The idea that we could efficiently build something. Everything didn’t have to be an individual human being with their hands building each individual item. It was great; it brought tremendous prosperity to the human race as a whole. But we did lose something. We lost that flexibility. You go to the store to buy clothes, and you have to choose from a set of discrete sizes. Someone had built a machine to make this jacket that isn’t made specifically for you. It’s made for somebody sort of like you. The exciting, new opportunity we have with flexibility is we can regain some of that custom-made for you. It will fit you perfectly. It will perfectly address the needs of your operation or business because everything doesn’t have to be the same. So that’s really where this idea of flexibility is something that has been evolving for a long time. I think the understanding of how valuable it is in modern industry is really just being underscored now with this pandemic.

Danny:

Yeah, absolutely agree 100%. We started definitely jumping in ahead here a little bit, which I’m getting excited about. But I want to take it back. I want to take a step back for a second because I want to get to know you a little bit more. I want to get to know Daniel and how you got into this space. Take me back. Was this something that, as a kid, you were involved in technology? Or was it just something that you picked up later down the road or you went to school for? Where did that start?

Daniel:

I have been really fortunate, and I realize this more and more as time goes by. I was born in Silicon Valley before it was called Silicon Valley and had some really great opportunities that, at the time, I didn’t realize were so special. For example, I had the opportunity to attend probably one of the first ten elementary schools in the world that had a computer lab and was able to use their Commodore PET computers, Apple One computers, and, to me, it was perfectly normal, like oh yeah, I’m going to go to school, and I’m going to go to the computer lab. This is back in the early ’80s. Then the same thing: in middle school, I got to learn programming as a young person and always just had an incredible interest in technology. My parents were incredibly frustrated by the fact that they couldn’t bring something home that didn’t end up taken all apart, sometimes successfully put back together. But more often than not, parts were lost along the way. Then, in high school, incredible opportunities to study programming, electronics, et cetera. And I was really fortunate that I was chosen as the top computer science student in all of California…

Danny:

Oh, wow.

Daniel:

…and was able to attend a program at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab where I got to program, work on AI projects on, at the time, the world’s fastest supercomputer and there met some very influential people like Edward Teller who had a big impact on the way I think about technology and humanity and our responsibilities.

Danny:

That’s pretty awesome. So obviously you’ve been steeped in it since day one. You said you were in elementary school, and you had access to– I think it’s hilarious, you’re talking about how stuff would come home and you would try to disassemble it and reassemble it, sometimes successfully. I remember getting, we got a– I don’t know what we had, some early computer back in the, this was early ’90s, maybe late ’80s. I remember messing around on MS-DOS and just completely jacking up the computer doing all kind of– I don’t know what the heck I’m doing. I’m just pressing; I’m learning little things. It’s very– definitely didn’t take it to the level that you did. That’s for sure. Somewhere down the line, has there been somebody that’s been a big influence on you or has had something that has triggered a pivotal moment in your journey?

Daniel:

Yeah, there are a number. Certainly, first I would credit my father for instilling in me the values of humanity and our responsibility to help those around us. That has been a foundation of my life from the beginning, and I have to say that that’s certainly where I’ve found the most joy in life is when you know that you’re doing something that is making the lives of other people better.

Danny:

Absolutely. How did he do that? What’s a concrete way that you remember that he instilled this?

Daniel:

Yeah, so he was very active in Boy Scouts and so pulled me along through the Boy Scout thing. Service, community service is a really big aspect of that program. Not so popular anymore for a variety of reasons, but I certainly appreciated having that opportunity growing up. He would drag me to the house of widows who– I remember going to this mobile home park pretty regularly to do maintenance on an elderly woman’s trailer. I hated it, quite frankly, at first. It smelled—

Danny:

How old were you?

Daniel:

Oh, it was over the years, so probably starting as young as five or six and, then, going all the way up through my teenage years until I left for MIT. It really was a great experience for me, not just in the fact that we have a responsibility to help people, but also we were solving problems. I had to go in there at a very young age. He expected me to go and look at something, figure out what’s wrong with it and come up with a solution. I really appreciate that because as I got to MIT, I have to say one of the things that surprised me, and I was so excited to get to this school where I felt like it would be a mecca of like-minded people who were just fascinated with engineering and technology, et cetera. And it was, but I was a little bit surprised how many people there just chose engineering as a major and didn’t really eat it and breathe it and sleep it like I did. So I was surprised when I got there and people didn’t know how a car engine worked. They didn’t know how to rebuild an engine. They didn’t know how to build a robot. So the fact that I had a very hands-on childhood was very important in developing, at least the way my brain works which is, boy, if I don’t understand how that thing actually works, I’m not going to be satisfied until I do. I think that broad exposure to a very wide range of different disciplines has been one of the key strengths that I’ve been able to bring to bear at a lot of these things. The innovation, the exciting opportunities, I think, tends to occur at the interfaces between different disciplines. I’m very grateful for that.

Danny:

That’s an awesome story, and it obviously is a testament to, like you mentioned, opening up, talking about your vision on how you dedicate 10% of the time, your employees’ time, the company time, towards non-profits and charities and helping over there. Obviously, I just think that’s such a fascinating story on how, obviously, that has shaped you from the technology standpoint from a figuring things out mode and also that greater aspect of humanity. I think that’s, actually, a very beautiful story.

Daniel:

Well, and I think that one of the things I’ve learned over the years is that focusing on the greater good is good business. And early on, I took a lot of heat for that. I took a lot of heat for people suggesting that, “You couldn’t really run a company, a socially responsible company, and be a real company.” It was, maybe, a lifestyle company or something like that. I wholly rejected that premise. I believed that from…and I think that the other aspect is, a lot of times people feel like, “Well first, we have to achieve massive economic success. Then, once we’ve done that, maybe we’ll think about giving back.” I think it’s important and incumbent on each of us to figure out how to give back immediately, every day, starting day one. So the 10% community service policy opportunity that we’ve created for our employees has been incredibly successful from a business perspective. Attracting and retaining the world’s best talent, attracting and retaining people who are team players, who are uniquely capable of working within a team effectively and solving problems together, we believe we’ve really benefited from that over the years.

Danny:

Absolutely, sounds like it. I love it. I think that’s fantastic. Let’s jump into– we talked about this a little bit at the beginning. But this is industry challenges or, as I like to sometimes phrase it, as opportunities. Obviously, there are a tremendous amount out there right now. We talked about– flexibility, obviously, was a huge piece as we look at supply chain resiliency. I loved your analogy talking about the industrial revolution, for example, which, I think, is fascinating. When you look at history and just how quickly, over the last 120 years or so, how much we’ve evolved technologically. Look at manufacturing. Look at the speed of travel. Man, the fastest we could travel at the turn of the century was what, 30 miles an hour or so? Then, when we had the Apollo missions, we’re doing 17,000 miles per hour, something crazy like that.

Daniel:

Yeah, it is a really interesting evolution. And I think part of what makes it both simultaneously incredibly exciting and somewhat scary is the fact that the pace only accelerates. Technology creates the opportunity for more technology faster. And this move from purpose-built machines to general-purpose machines has really been driving that. So the fact that it used to be that a cell phone was to communicate remotely with somebody and now it is the basis of our society, in a sense, and you can use your cell phone for just about any task. Not something that anyone really would have predicted, but the impact that technology has only accelerates. And so that’s really why I feel like it’s important for engineers to take responsibility to think about– not necessarily completely own, but to at least think about– the impact of the technology we create. This was really made clear to me when I had the opportunity to talk to Edward Teller at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, had a big impact on me, not necessarily anything specific he said, but just thinking about the gravity of the implications of the hydrogen bomb and all of the factors that would come into that. You can have a variety of opinions about it. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong opinions, but the fact of the matter is, we need to be thoughtful about the impact the technology we build will have on the human race. I don’t think it’s sufficient anymore to just say, yeah, we’ll build this stuff, and we’ll let other people figure out what’s right and wrong. The technology in some sense is shaping what’s right now. You think about social media. It’s just a fascinating issue. It goes back to this idea, we’re not going to be able to, we just simply cannot predict the future at this point. What is going to be happening five years from now? Who knows.

Danny:

Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s interesting, and I think that’s fantastic. Do you have a methodology or anything on how you, even inside Vecna, of how you think about… we’ll call it purpose-driven engineering or R&D. Is there a certain phase you go through to say, hey, let’s really think about the implications of this?

Daniel:

Yeah, I think that it’s a team effort in the sense that we are very driven by the idea of empowering humanity. Any products that we get involved with can’t be about just making money for somebody as much as it is how do we improve productivity allowing the human race to accomplish more than ever before? How do we make sure that that benefit is accessible and available to everybody? Our goal is to improve life for everybody on the planet. Sometimes that takes a little bit of time for the benefits to get there. But again, you think about something like the internet. The massive impact it has had on people’s ability to achieve security, safety, equality, access to capital, micro-loans, to end abuse and those types of things, far, far, far reaching. That wasn’t what the people who were working on connecting two universities over, connecting the computers at two universities: they weren’t thinking about any of that. They were thinking about science and building rockets and collaborating. But then this vast, positive social impact– and there’s negative, too. But on the whole, I think we agree the best positive social impact comes out as a side-effect. That’s the key thing is that the side effects tend to be far more impactful than the original reason that we were building the technology.

Danny:

Yeah, I’d say it’s probably next, near to impossible to– well, it is 100% impossible, I think, to actually predict, hey, what’s the good or the bad or whatever for this. But I do like the idea of thinking about it. Certainly, as we get into technology and how rapidly accelerated it continues to be that there’s a lot of, specifically around AI and machine learning, and obviously robotics is being thrown in there. There’s a lot of, well, it’s really interesting. Is it one day going to be Terminator where machines are going to take over? A lot of interesting debate and conversation about that. I think that– I’m totally blanking on his name right now– Tesla

Daniel:

Elon Musk.

Danny:

Elon Musk, thank you. I can’t believe I just totally blanked on that– has some interesting thoughts, and I’d be curious on yours.

Daniel:

Well, it’s interesting that you brought up Elon because he said something that I really respect not too long ago. When the Model 3 was languishing, production wasn’t happening at the rate it was supposed to, he Tweeted about how he, Tesla, was owning a mistake that they made. He said, “I made a mistake. We tried to over-automate.” Then he said that people are vastly underrated. This has been the thesis with which we’ve built our automation approach is that it’s really about empowering the human worker, not replacing the human worker. If you’re focused on trying to replace humans and go straight to this lights-out automation where humans aren’t involved, you’re not going to achieve the kind of results, the kind of value creation that you could otherwise, the kind of resilience. There are always problems. There are exceptions. This is exacerbated by the fact that the world is changing more rapidly. The types of products that need to get to consumers are changing rapidly. And so things are going to go wrong. Technology isn’t good at handling things going wrong. People are good at things, handling things going wrong.

Danny:

That’s very true.

Daniel:

And so achieving that ultimate, that optimal pairing of humans and the technology is really where the key to success is. And so I was really grateful that Elon acknowledged that. Humans are incredible, and until you’ve built a robot to try and do something that humans do, it’s really easy to just believe Hollywood. I’ll give you one brief example. Early on– you mentioned the Terminator. We were working on a military research project, a robot to rescue a soldier from the battlefield. It was called the BEAR Robot. I was on an interview with the BBC, and of course the very first thing they said is, “Now you’ve built the Terminator.” I said, “Well, no, we haven’t built the Terminator. First of all, the robot’s objective is to help. Second of all, that’s Hollywood, and it’s important to understand the difference between Hollywood and a lot of the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that surrounds these things compared to actual concrete information.” I was meeting with one of our program sponsors on this BEAR Robot project just to draw out this point. He said, “And I’d also like you to have the robot pick up this bottle.” It wasn’t part of the project, and I said, “Well, that’s not really part of the project, and to boot, that’s– ” and this was a decade ago– “that’s a completely unsolved academic problem, an incredibly hard problem to solve.” And he says, “Well, why? We paid for cameras for the robot, so it can see it. Just tell it to pick it up.”

Danny:

“Oh, hang on, real quick. Let me just–” yeah.

Daniel:

Well, and so that’s the thing. We take an incredible amount for granted as human beings because we are amazing.

Danny:

Yeah, the amount of autonomy that we have, yes.

Daniel:

It’s amazing. The computer doesn’t see things. The computer gets a series of zeroes and ones. And somehow, a programmer has to take those zeroes and ones and turn them into some kind of useful information to then make the robot take some actions. We are so, so far away from the Terminator or AI becoming alive and threatening the human race. Now, humans can use technology to hurt people. That’s what we really need to be careful of. But I would say, in general, my feeling is that we don’t need to fear technology for technology, the technology itself. What we need to do is go back to my original premise. We need to be thoughtful about how technology is used and applied and make sure that we’re not leaving people behind and make sure we’re not hurting people and make sure that the technology is helping to empower humanity, not create more problems.

Danny:

Oh, great. Daniel, listen, I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. This has been fascinating. We’ve talked about a lot of different things. We talked about Terminator; we talked about having that human experience and really being thoughtful around design, around products there. But also, I love your stories about growing up with your father and just learning to help people and really building a company that can really be focused on, or part of a mission of doing good for people. I think that’s fantastic. Then, obviously, talking about Mass Robotics and what you’re doing. I think you guys are doing some pretty amazing work and some stuff there. So for anybody who would love to come check you guys out, I guess go to, what, vecnarobotics.com? Is that the right URL? And then, Mass Robotics, what’s the website there?

Daniel:

Yeah, massrobotics.org.

Danny:

Perfect, dot org, so couldn’t be any easier. So Daniel, thank you again so much for your time, and– yeah. Anybody wants to—

Daniel:

My pleasure as always.

Danny:

Awesome. Well, that wraps us up today. Thank you so much for watching or listening to today’s episode on the Executive Series here with Daniel Theobald with Vecna Robotics and Mass Robotics. Obviously very, very interesting stuff we talked about today. So thank you for watching or listening. Listen, if you are not on our email list, you need to go to IndustrialSage.com right now, and you need to subscribe. Why? Because you’re missing out on fabulous content like this where we talk to other executives in the manufacturing and industrial space, technology, and supply chain; because there’s amazing things that are going on right now that you need to know about. We have manufacturing news and a whole lot of other content that you’re missing out on if you’re not on right now. So that’s all I got for you today. Thanks so much for watching. I’ll be back next week with another episode on IndustrialSage.

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