AI News, MIT's Modular Robotic Chain Is Whatever You Want It to Be

MIT's Modular Robotic Chain Is Whatever You Want It to Be

As sensors, computers, actuators, and batteries decrease in size and increase in efficiency, it becomes possible to make robots much smaller without sacrificing a whole lot of capability.

MIT’s ChainFORM is an interesting take on this idea: it’s an evolution of last year’s LineFORM multifunctional snake robot that introduces modularity to the system, letting you tear of a strip of exactly how much robot you need, and then reconfigure it to do all kinds of things.

MIT Media Lab calls ChainFORM a “shape changing interface,” because it comes from their Tangible Media Group, but if it came from a robotics group, it would be called a “poke-able modular snake robot with blinky lights.” Each ChainFORM module includes touch detection on multiple surfaces, angular detection, blinky lights, and motor actuation via a single servo motor.

The researchers also discuss things like adding different kinds of sensor modules and actuator modules, which would certainly increase the capability of the system as a whole without increasing the complexity of individual modules, but it would also make ChainFORM into more of a system of modules, which is (in my opinion) a bit less uniquely elegant than what ChainFORM is now.

Tangible Media Group

most profound technologies are those that disappear.

They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.」(Weiser, M.

Scientific American, 1991, 265(3), pp.

and Ullmer, B., Tangible Bits: Towards Seamless Interfaces between People, Bits and Atoms, in Proceedings of Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ‘97), (Atlanta, March 1997), ACM Press, pp.

Supply chains and value webs Part of the Business Trends series

Ecosystems are dynamic and co-evolving communities of diverse actors who create new value through increasingly productive and sophisticated models of both collaboration and competition.

And they have altered the basis of competition—as one scholar has suggested, increasingly today, “Companies don’t compete—supply chains do.”1 By mastering the management of assets that exist outside the traditional boundaries of the firm, the supply chain profession has also helped forge the dynamic, collaborative, industry-transcending world of ecosystems described throughout this report.

Today’s supply chains contain growing varieties of players interacting in interdependent and often indirect ways.3 In fact, many “supply chains” appear to be evolving into “value webs,” which span and connect whole ecosystems of suppliers and collaborators.

set of powerful developments have worked together to help transform the business environment, changing how supply chains are configured, further heightening their strategic significance for many firms, and creating new leadership imperatives for the years ahead.

The leading firms of mature economies moved rapidly to globalize their operations, many of them with an eye to a future when all the growth of the world’s population—the next billion people—would be in emerging economies.4 Meanwhile, many businesses in less mature economies gained the opportunity to grow and join the global economic mainstream.

Leading firms everywhere soon realized there was a “sweet spot” to be found by effectively marrying globalization to “localization.” Nestlé, for example, declares that “food is a local matter,” and operates its networks according to a basic principle: “Centralize what you must, but decentralize what you can.”5 The Coca-Cola Company works to strike a similar balance.

One commentator describes its strategy as “mingling global and local… utilizing local suppliers and local bottlers, employing local people, and addressing local culture and taste.”6 For many operations managers, such goals call for complex, multifaceted enhancements of activities taking place at multiple locational levels.

In one frequently quoted example, Chinese motorcycle manufacturer Dachangjiang deliberately pursued both value web and supply chain arrangements by breaking its design into multiple modules, awarding several suppliers responsibility and substantial latitude for each, and actively encouraging collaboration between them to promote innovation, while also imposing aggressive performance targets regarding pricing, quality, and timing of production.7

They are usually more adept at working with others: 80 percent of surveyed leaders rate their ability to negotiate and collaborate with partners highly, compared to less than half of followers.8 These greater abilities and attitudes reflect in the bottom line: 73 percent of surveyed leaders reported financial performance significantly above their industry average, in contrast to less than 15 percent of followers.9 Value webs are characterized by complex, connected, and interdependent relationships, where knowledge flows, learning, and collaboration are almost as important as more familiar product flows, controls, and coordination.

No surprise, then, that according to startup tracker Crunchbase, the average startup in a supply chain today is smaller by almost a third than those that participated in the decade 2000–2010.10 Indeed, some suppliers are so tiny that their connections with large firms can appear more like talent sourcing than procurement.

(As a familiar example of a platform, picture Amazon Services, which provides its customers with an e-commerce infrastructure for order-taking and fulfillment, allowing them to focus on their offerings.) In China, Alibaba allows small businesses to build their own supply chains, acting as a facilitator of relationships between firms that otherwise would not or could not cooperate.

For example, Real Time Value Network has over 30,000 trading partners, allowing supply chain managers to more easily find the small players that can bring ideas and flexibility to their arrangements.12 New software tools can also provide broader perspective and deeper insight into expanding value webs.

The scandal highlighted deficiencies in the traceability of the food supply network, and dealt a blow to the finances and reputations of affected brands, retailers, and restaurants.15 It is simply expected today that firms have clear visibility into the activities—and the integrity—of their vendors.

After a swarm of workers from its suppliers and customers voluntarily showed up in sub-zero temperatures and got the plant up and running again, their value web was in many respects stronger for the experience.17 Designing resilience into supply chains and value webs will likely rise in importance, and be supported by new capabilities.

“You can manufacture the products at whatever base you want, providing you can get a machine there.”18Data is also likely to play an increasingly critical role, especially as the Internet of Things enables vast amounts to be collected and analyzed to create greater transparency and discover opportunities, efficiencies, and problems.

Development of the talent of partners is also rising in importance for many firms such as Nike, which are placing increased emphasis on providing shared training programs for suppliers’ employees.19 The supply chain profession itself is also clearly evolving, and will require important new skills and capabilities: design of resilient networks;

In the Deloitte 2015 supply chain survey, 71 percent of executives claimed that it was difficult to recruit senior supply chain leaders,21 and only 43 percent felt that their supply chain strategic thinking and problem solving was very good.

Listen, for example to Kurt James, a supply chain leader at McDonald’s supply chain: When hiring, we look for people with character traits uniquely suited to our supply chain—namely, an innate sense of fairness and an ability to consistently empathize with the challenges suppliers face in meeting our often aggressive deadlines, standards, and evolving needs.22 Substantial experimentation will likely occur, driven particularly by the increasing prevalence and predictive qualities of data.

A recent study analyzed Twitter posts to estimate influenza infection in New York City and proved far more accurate than traditional seasonal flu trend estimates.23 When real-time data sources from across massive webs are brought together, new insights can emerge that enable, for example, far more accurate and localized demand forecasting.

Amazon, for example, filed for patents in February 2015 for installing printers in delivery trucks—taking the concept of “real-time” to a new level.24 Many supply chain professionals will become more closely connected to colleagues who are creating “on-demand” talent models, or designing new, more open innovation systems.

As ecosystems become increasingly central to business strategy, the core value of the profession will lie less and less in getting the same things done ever more efficiently, and more and more in the strategic pursuit of creating new value, achieving breakthrough performance, sustaining growth, and—once again—changing the world.