Research to develop a remotely operative robot to crawl up, down and over metal structures welding, cleaning, cutting and binding has moved from TTU mechanical engineering professor Steven Canfield’s laboratory to a company begun by one of his former students.
“As a faculty member, I don’t want to spend my time hiring employees to write safety manuals; the company comes in and does that,” Canfield said, noting that most of the time universities are prohibited from starting private companies.
The company, Robotic Technologies of Tennessee, recently received a license from TTU’s Research Office to use Canfield’s patents and commercialize the robots. The university patent will be added to RTT’s intellectual property portfolio.
“Building a company in Cookeville is important to me and without a strong engineering department at TTU, I don’ think I could have made it a reality,” said Jamie Beard, president and co-founder of the company. Beard grew up in Middle Tennessee and completed his undergraduate, graduate and doctoral studies at TTU.
Creating commercial products from university research is not very common. Many patented products and methods languish in universities without a company or investor who is willing to take the research to the next level.
“We’re going to take the early-stage research from the university into the real world,” said Steve Glovsky, RTT executive vice president in charge of business development, who is not a Tennessee Tech graduate. “RTT will get feedback from the field and continue to change and adjust the robot and develop a market for it.”
This is the first time a TTU professor and his graduate students have developed technology that has spawned a company begun by university graduates, according to Francis Otuonye, TTU’s associate vice president for research and graduate studies.
“The hardest part of technology transfer is identifying an individual or company that is receptive to taking the invention to the marketplace,” Otuonye said. “Dr. Canfield has set the stage at TTU for the commercialization of intellectual property.”
Though robots frequently build things like cars and refrigerators in plants, RTT’s robots will be able to work outside of controlled environments on structures like buildings, bridges and ships. They are being tested in U.S. Navy shipyards. The Navy has contributed nearly a quarter of the $2 million in government funding Canfield and his team has used to develop the robots.
Nearly another $1 million has come from the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Technology Transfer program, which helps to link companies looking for new investments with research projects in universities.
The robots may, some day, help bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S.
“Once you’re away from a factory floor, the largest costs in manufacturing are labor. If labor is dramatically less expensive in other parts of the world, those parts of the world have a competitive advantage unless labor can be made more productive,” Glovsky said. “We make labor more productive.”
Using robots in unstructured manufacturing environments is not new; researchers have been working on them for decades. The ones RTT and Canfield are working on weigh less, distribute weight more evenly, move over a wider variety of surfaces and carry a heavier load than previous models.
“In earlier research, we had robots weighing 500 pounds that could carry loads of 50 pounds,” Canfield said. “Now we have robots that weigh 50 pounds that can carry 50 to 100 pounds.”
A skilled technician must operate the robot within view of the work surface. The robots are not designed to reduce jobs, but to give workers better tools to help them be more productive.
“If you see a group of people working on a bridge, you’ll see them with shovels and hammers and tools like that,” Canfield said. “We have an infrastructure problem in this country and we trying to give labor the tools to reduce costs and become more effective.”
The robots are already creating jobs for mechanical engineers, including TTU graduates who want to stay in the area. All of RTT’s employees who design, build and test the robots are TTU graduates.
“RTT is creating jobs and employing people,” Otuonye said. “Dr. Canfield’s invention has the potential to develop other products that can be commercialized to create jobs not only for the people in this area, but nationwide.”