Featured interview - Rick Brookshire

Rick Brookshire is director of product development for Epson Robots.

Rick Brookshire, Epson Robots

ADDEDMonday, March 9, 2020

  • Q
    What makes you optimistic about the future of the automation industry?
    A
    The automation industry is growing faster now than it ever has. We continue to build new products that people do amazing things with. And we’ve been able to bring the cost of robots down. Way back when even a SCARA robot was $40,000 or $50,000. Now we have those robots down to the range of $7,500.
    
    That allows us to start getting into all these other applications that we couldn’t do in the past. 
    
  • Q
    Why do your customers return to you project after project?
    A
    No. 1 is reliability. We have robots that have been out there for 20 years, still running and building product. And quite frankly, we sometimes go to those customers and say, “You know, you could get this new one that’s faster than the robot you have from 20 years ago.” And they will say, “Yes, we know. But this one is still working fine, and we love it … we would like to just keep going with this.”
    
    So that reliability is a huge factor. People want to know and trust that the robot vendor that they’re working with is going to have products that will just continue to last even after you abuse them a little bit. 
    
    Another area is ease of use. The phrase “ease of use” gets overused in the industry. When a robot or an automation vendor talks to a potential customer they are most certainly going to say, “And ours is super easy to use.”
    
    We go ahead and show them. Sit them in the seat and show them how to drive. In about 20 minutes, they are making the robot do all kinds of things that they never dreamed of.
    
    Then finally is our support team. They are extremely responsive, and when people pick up the phone and talk to one of our technical support guys, they are talking to people who not only understand the products, but they’ve used the products. 
    
  • Q
    How has Epson grown or changed in the past year, and what do you expect for your company in the next 12 to 24 months?
    A
    We’ve been working with system integration partners for a long time now, basically since we started in the North American, Asian and European markets. But we really didn’t put together a formal system integrator partner program. We’ve just been working with the integrators, helping them to be successful, making sure that customers got good final products and so on. 
    
    Recently, we decided we probably should formalize our partnership with system integrators, so we came up with a partner program for them called AutomateElite. 
    
    We are also looking at our product line. We’ve been the market leader on the SCARA robot side for a long time, and we’re constantly looking to build them faster and to branch out our lineup. For example, we introduced our T-series line-up in the last couple of years, which is an entry-level robot now at an unbelievable price of $7,500. 
    
    We’re also going to continue to extend our work on the AI side and ease of use. Over the next year or two, you will see more and more ease-of-use improvements from Epson and a lot of automated features within our software, such as wizards.
    
  • Q
    We hear all the time about how robots are taking jobs. In fact on a previous podcast, Jeff Bernstein, who is president of the Association for Advancing Automation, posited that the application of robots will result in a net increase in jobs and he has the data to prove it. Would you agree with him, and why or why not?
    A
    In many cases, these robots really aren’t taking over jobs that humans are doing. But they’re coming in and doing jobs that humans don’t want to do. 
    
    But there are cases where robots come in and takeover a job that humans used to do. But in those cases, here’s an opportunity now for people.
    
    For example, take someone in assembly process who really understands how that assembly process works and all the ins and outs.
    
    We can teach them how to program the robot and now they can build out their application themselves and create a totally new job that’s much better than what they had -- more money, more exciting, more challenges -- and they’re much happier as a result. 
    
    Robots are enhancing what humans are doing and doing a lot of the things that humans don’t want to do.
    
  • Q
    Kind of asking a basic question: Why do people or companies even automate? What are the problems they are facing that drive them to automate?
    A
    One of the biggest reasons is that companies are in business to make money. In general, they want to find a way to reduce the cost of their products. And usually automation can do that. We’re able to build more products, build them faster, build them with higher quality. 
    
    Quality is an area people want to continuously improve. Maybe you have 99.9 percent quality now. But you want 100 percent. We’re trying to get the absolute most out of our products that we possibly can. Automation allows you to get to that next level. 
    
    Then you’ve got safety. Some of the processes that companies are doing just aren’t really that well-suited for humans. They’re a little bit too dangerous in dangerous environments. The robots willingly and knowingly go into those environments with no issues whatsoever.
    
    The other thing I will mention is speed or throughput. Say you’re building a million products per month, but you need to get up to 3 million a month. Your business is exploding. Somehow you must get up to that and you simply cannot get and add enough people in to be able to do that.
    
    So being able to automate and scale the automation is, a lot of times, much easier than trying to add more people. 
    
    Then finally, there’s this area of precision. Robots are made specifically for super high precision, particularly in the environments that Epson plays in. For example, we have some robots that get all the way down to 5 microns in placement precision. Ask a human to place something within say 20 or 25 microns. It’s very difficult. 
    
    To put the size of a micron into perspective, the human hair is about 100 to 200 microns thick. When you talk about 5 microns, you’re talking about a fraction, a tiny fraction of the human hair. 
  • Q
    Do you specialize in any industry, product or discipline?
    A
    Epson is strong in a lot of different areas, such as automotive, electrical for electronics products, consumer products and medical products.
    
    Those are the areas that we tend to sell in the most. However, there’s a lot of other things, such as industrial products. For example, something very popular right now are industrial valves.
    
  • Q
    Please share the history of how Epson began and how the company evolved into the automation industry.
    A
    We started some 40 some years ago because of the watch industry. As many people know, Seiko Epson Corp. builds watches. We build them for Seiko Time. Building watches is difficult, especially difficult to do by hand. So many years ago, we needed to find a way to automate so that we could scale-up the number of different watches and watch manufacturing that we did.
    
    We found that there were no good robots out there for us to be able to use at the time. So, we built our own, which is something that Epson does commonly for all our products.
    
    We generally will build core technologies that we will apply to a specific product -- for example, the three LCD core technologies for our projectors -- and then we go and build the products themselves.
    
    We have a manufacturing group of over 400 people that put together systems for internal use only, and all of that started from us first building our robots.