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The forthcoming Robotics Manufacturing Hub wants to give small manufacturers a competitive edge

Hazelwood's Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute scored $14.2 million from the recent Build Back Better Regional Challenge to launch the program. Here's what's planned.

At an ARM Institute gathering. (Courtesy ARM Institute)

Since it was founded in 2017, Pittsburgh’s Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute has been on a mission to improve manufacturing through robotics. Now it has $14.2 million in federal Build Back Better Regional Challenge funding to elevate that goal by launching its Robotics Manufacturing Hub.

The project has two elements, as ARM Institute COO Jay Douglass told The first is creating a “de-risking” center for small manufacturers that allows them to try out robotics solutions. And for the second, the Hazelwood-based nonprofit is operating a network of makerspaces around the Pittsburgh region.

While the makerspaces will function as places where like-minded people come together to share their interests, the de-risking center will allow small manufacturers to simulate what it’d be like to produce products using robotics tech under the tutelage of experts.

“They can save a lot of resources, a lot of time, [and] expense which are things that they don’t have by giving it a go,” Douglass said. “We can run an experiment for them, then at the end of it, provide data of whether or not this may or may not make sense for them to deploy in their home operation. So we’re taking the risk out of the investment.”

The Department of Defense-backed ARM Institute has long believed that just as larger companies in the US have reaped the benefits of using robots, smaller entities deserved a chance to use them to better compete in the changing economy, its COO said — they just didn’t always have the resources. In the system that the institute is hoping to create, small manufacturers will be able to make their products cheaper to make, while also being higher quality, able to get to market faster, and ultimately more competitive.

An idea for this project like this did exist in a similar form for the institute before the pandemic, Douglass said, but 2020 paused any plans to move forward indefinitely. Now, with the government grant funding, it’ll be relying on its relationships with orgs such as Innovation Works and Catalyst Connections, fellow funding recipients, to point them in the direction of small manufacturers in need of a hand.

“Now that we have this different pot of money, if you will, we’re able to completely pursue that vision,” Douglass said.

Although the manufacturing hub won’t begin its four-year timeline until 2023, for the ARM Institute, the clock is already ticking. While the team of six consisting of a lead engineer, robotics engineers and administrators all under Douglass’s oversight are still being selected to bring the project to life, the institute has already settled on running the Robotics Manufacturing Hub out of its Mill 19 facility at Hazelwood Green.

“We’ve already hired several of the people that we need, we have already have several robots, we have the space, and we’re starting to line up clients,” Douglass said. “So we’re working now every day on getting this going and I think we’ll be well into our first project by the first of the year.”

Atiya Irvin-Mitchell is a 2022-2024 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.
Companies: Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute / U.S. Government

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