In a move intended to make it easier for Idaho businesses to incorporate automation, Boise State University is partnering with a Taiwanese robotics company to create a robotics lab in the university’s school of engineering.
NEXCOM, a Taiwanese company, created NexCOBOT, a U.S. subsidiary, in March in Fremont, California. The company is donating four robots intended for education – called “minibots” – to create the NexCOBOT-Idaho AI Robot Innovation Space, in the Charles P. Ruch Engineering Building. More robots might be donated in the future, Boise State said.
With the minibots, Boise State will start a robotics curriculum in the fall, said Aykut Satici, assistant professor. While the focus will first be on graduate education, it could move to undergraduate and workforce education in the future, he said. In fact, though the robots require skills in programming and linear algebra, he could probably develop a curriculum for junior high students, he added.
Students in the program will be able to enter the workforce and contribute more quickly to automation efforts, Satici said. “The partnership will help grow the contribution of Boise State into the workforce,” he said.
Manufacturing contributes about 13 percent of Idaho’s gross domestic product, with just 9 percent of the employees, meaning manufacturing jobs pay more than average, said Steve Hatten, executive director of TechHelp, a partnership between Idaho’s three state universities that provides technical and business assistance to Idaho manufacturers. “Manufacturing is down 25 percent nationally, but it’s relatively strong in Idaho,” particularly in computers and electronics and food processing, he said.
But while some Idaho industries, such as dairy, are fairly well automated, there is slower adoption in small to medium-sized companies, Hatten said. Moreover, Idaho doesn’t have one of the dozen or so advanced manufacturing institutes – funded by the Department of Defense and public-private partnerships – and has less manufacturing presence than some states. A Rockwell Automation systems integrator map shows Idaho with just six companies, he said. While some states had none at all, other states had hundreds, he noted.
Robots might be used not just in manufacturing, but in other industries as well, such as a robotic coffee shop, said Clement Lin, chairman of NEXCOM International Co. Ltd., who was visiting from Taiwan for the occasion. “The market potential is huge.”
That potential drew interest from the state, with representatives from the Department of Commerce, including director Bobbi-Jo Meuleman, attending. “This partnership really highlights the strong relationship between Idaho and Taiwan,” she said, adding that she has made two trips to the country.
Boise State was chosen as the repository for the lab partly because of Idaho’s strong relationship with Taiwan, said Eddie Yen, director and official representative of the state’s Asia Trade Office, in Taiwan. Idaho companies such as Melaleuca and Micron have major relationships with Taiwan, and the country is a market for Idaho agricultural products such as wheat, he said. Taiwan is Idaho’s third-largest trading partner, said Vincent Yao, director general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, in Seattle.
The difference between the NexCOBOT robots and some other industrial robots is that they use the EtherCAT (Ethernet for Control Automation Technology) open communications protocol instead of proprietary systems used by some major industry players such as Siemens, Lin said. They are also easier to program because they use ordinary computer languages such as C++ rather than industrial control language or other proprietary systems.
The minibots’ use of the open communications standard is analogous to what happened when personal computers started using industry-standard protocols to communicate with each other, leading to the Internet, as opposed to being easily able to communicate only with other computers from the same manufacturer. More than 5,000 stakeholders support EtherCAT, which has been around for more than ten years, Lin said. Use of the protocol means robots and other devices from those vendors can more easily communicate with each other.
NEXCOM is also recruiting Idaho industrial partners, Lin said.