Michigan Automotive Robotics Cluster Initiative Begins to Take Shape

The robotics industry in Southeast Michigan is attempting to turn the automotive slump into an opportunity to branch off into…well, automotive.

But where once the automotive market for robotics meant industrial-strength assembly-line work, the opportunity lies now in robotic systems that can be embedded in military and civilian vehicles. Such a shift entails a change in thinking. But it’s not so big of a change that existing-or, make that, surviving-robotics companies cannot hope to make the transition.

Those who are pushing for this transition say that it simply makes sense for a region that has a great deal of underused talent in engineering and robotics, along with excess manufacturing capabilities that can be adapted to new uses. Put all the pieces all together and aim them at an opportunity that is growing, such as the automated systems and sensors market, and Southeast Michigan could become a center for world-class automotive robotics innovation.

Leading the charge into this new robotics world is Col. James Braden, director of the Michigan Economic Development Corp.’s Defense Contract Coordination Center. He is gathering together representatives from industry, academia, and government, steering them toward a new Michigan Automotive Robotics Cluster (MARC) initiative.

But don’t let the fact that there is already an acronym for it fool you. The “cluster” is really mainly an idea that Braden is trying to turn into reality by pulling together interested companies and going for funding—and that’s as far as it’s gone right now.

The germ of this idea came from a July 2009 visit from Karen Mills, an administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration, which is encouraging regional technology cluster initiatives across the country. She met with the local chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), along with area representatives of the automotive tier supply chain. Historically, Mills told the group, the robotics industry has been being driven chiefly by military needs. A big opportunity, she said, lay in transferring more of that capability to civilian use.

Braden wants to take Mills’ idea a bit further, saying that it is important to think about developing both military and civilian applications simultaneously. Robotics companies should not forego the short-term opportunity to sell to the military, he says, but they should also think about how to apply military technology to much broader commercial opportunities, such as the emergency first-responder and homeland security markets.

For example, Braden says, mobile military robots designed to find roadside bombs … Next Page »

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