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Ask the Experts: Robotics Online’s Advice Column

by Bennett Brumson , with contributions from RIA staff
Robotic Industries Association

 
Executive Summary
Ask the Experts offers unique insight into customer needs and vendor capabilities in the robotics industry. According to participants, users improve the chance for valuable feedback if they follow these guidelines:

1) Give context for the problem (big picture)
2) Provide details about applications and requirements (part weight, cycle times, etc.)
3) Be specific about makes and models of equipment for which advice is sought
4) Give a deadline for responses

According to members, Ask the Experts can lead to new business and is a good way to reinforce current customer relationships. Many RIA members see it as a way to identify real world technical issues, and some use it as a business tool to identify unmet needs in the end user community.



Ask the Experts
Robotics Online, the Robotic Industries Association’s website, has been improved and expanded for 2009. One feature, Ask the Experts, is the go-to place for questions and useful information about the power and flexibility of industrial robotics. Ask the Experts has been a popular part of RIA’s website for several years and new upgrades ensure it meets the needs of today’s users.  
 

Ask the Experts Categories by Popularity

  1. Material Handling
  2. Careers & Students
  3. System Integration
  4. Assembly
  5. Welding, Arc
  6. Material Removal
  7. Simulation
  8. Coating
  9. Spot Welding
  10. Dispensing
  11. Inspection
  12. Safety
 
“ATI Industrial Automation (Apex, North Carolina) is closely allied with RIA. Ask the Experts gives us insight to what is happening in the robotics industry,” says Catherine Morris, Senior Account Manager at ATI. “If companies are investing in robotics, those companies may need peripheral products like ATI manufactures as well.”
 
Catherine Morris is the 2009 Chairwoman of RIA’s Membership Committee which provides guidance on this and other member benefits. One change that reflects committee input is a link from expert answers to their company profile on Robotics Online. This provides users with more background to consider as they process answers to their questions.
 
Goods and Services
The value of Ask the Experts starts with its convenient location on the Internet and the ability for people to get direct answers to their robot questions. “RIA’s website is a focal point for information and resources in the robotics industry. Robotics Online is the place for people to get information and to help potential end-users overcome their fears of robotics,” says Peter Cavallo, Robot Sales Manager at DENSO Robotics, Long Beach, California. “Ask the Experts provides information to potential robotic users and gives answers to specific questions they might have when moving towards using robotics.”

While Ask the Experts is a commercial forum, its primary focus is to help address real-world technical issues or provide information to those unfamiliar with industrial robotics. “Motoman believes people are looking for noncommercial approaches to questions they want answered about industrial robotics. Ask the Experts is a way of doing that without becoming a sales effort,” says Erik Nieves, Technology Director at Motoman Inc., West Carrollton, Ohio. “End-users want to ask questions and get information without having to listen to a sales pitch.”

Nieves says Ask the Experts is an approachable way for end-users to get the information they need about robotics.  "Answering questions for potential end-users through Ask the Experts gives us the opportunity to demonstrate our expertise and further extend Motoman's credibility as a leader in the robotics field.”

Catherine Morris’ assessment is similar to Nieves. “The questions in Ask the Experts gives us a heads up on who is looking and is interested in adding robotics to their manufacturing plants. ATI will send the questioner an e-mail about information on collision protection or tool changers to inform them about the flexibility of robotics,” says Morris. “We give advice on how to take ATI’s products and incorporate them into a complete robotic system.”

Like Catherine Morris, Frank-Peter Kirgis, Head of Robotics Sales with ABB Inc., (Auburn Hills, Michigan) believes, “Ask the Experts is a good indicator about market needs while generating some leads. Also, Ask the Experts helps people understand robotics and creates awareness of their potential.” Kirgis goes on to say, “Topics that come up in Ask the Experts might be helpful in product planning discussions and analysis. Ask the Experts shows us where a need for education is and gives indications of trends.”

Kirgis continues, saying that some discussions in Ask the Experts eventually result in projects for ABB. “To really see benefits, companies responding to questions have to participate very actively.”

Applied Manufacturing Technologies Inc. (AMT, Orion, Michigan) participated in the previous version of “Ask the Experts,” recalls Michael Jacobs, President and CEO. “AMT has been involved with Ask the Experts since its outset. We feel Ask the Experts is a good service for people who have questions about specific applications and how to get into robotics. AMT hopes people who turn to Ask the Experts will recognize us as experts in the industry and do business with us in the future.”

James Cook, Applications Engineer with Stäubli Corp., Duncan, South Carolina, states, “Being part of Ask the Experts is a natural extension of my position in Stäubli’s training group. I train people on operation, maintenance, and the programing of robots, so Ask the Experts gives me an additional way to provide support.”

Cook explains the benefits of Ask the Experts for both Stäubli and end-users. “I find satisfaction when I am able to help someone. For Stäubli, participating in Ask the Experts puts us in contact with new customers. Secondly, we want our existing customers to be successful. Finally, Ask the Experts gives Stäubli more exposure to potential customers.” Cook concludes, reporting, “Ask the Experts has given Stäubli several sales leads over the years.”

From a different perspective, Professor of Engineering James Devaprasad, Director of the Robotics Center at Lake Superior State University (LSSU), Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, says, “Ask the Experts offers an excellent forum to present robot problems to people who are involved in similar activities as the questioner. People can pose a question and get a valuable response from a professional in a similar field.”

Devaprasad says that while Ask the Experts is voluntary, people in the robotics community have expressed their interest in helping others by providing answers. “The solution provided by Ask the Experts is not only open to the one who posed the question but to others. The person answering the question must give a thoughtful answer.” Devaprasad notes that Ask the Experts respondents are primarily answering questions to solve a problem and secondarily pushing their company’s products or services.

While experts from robot manufacturers and integrators field technical questions, Devaprasad handles questions relating to education and research. “I provide answers to individuals who are interested in education or training in robotics. I suggest which institution offers particular programs and what type of degrees are available.” Aside from helping end-users find a solution to their robotic questions, Devaprasad says Ask the Experts facilitates companies sponsoring student projects. “If a company is looking to find a new way of doing a robotic task or undertaking research and development, Ask the Experts can be a tool.”

Asking Questions
People who provide answers have some advice to those who pose questions in Ask the Experts. Catherine Morris of ATI says, “The more information or data questioners can provide about their application and its requirements, the more valuable the response. Some people are reluctant to reveal too much on a website and would like follow up by phone or e-mail.”

Being sufficiently specific when asking questions is also on the mind of Erik Nieves. “When asking questions, I believe in being specific. If I have six questions to answer this week, I tend to answer those that ask a direct question.” Nieves says general questions are appropriate for students because that fits their needs.

Michael Jacobs of AMT also believes in a balance between specificity and generality when submitting questions to “Ask the Experts.” “One challenge we face is trying to answer generic questions about a specific application. For example, if someone asks how to program a robot without including which model, I have difficulty giving specific information.” Jacobs says the answer he provides in such a case will be very broad.

Jim Devaprasad of LSSU cautions questioners not to expect this forum to solve complex problems. “Questions that dive right into the specifics of the problem pose a difficulty for those answering in getting a general picture of the questioner’s goals. Those responding may not understand the question because it is so specific, or the answer might be irrelevant because they do not know the context of the problem.”

Devaprasad suggests that questions be presented in three parts, going from general to specific. “The first part should give the context of the problem to be solved, then the specific question itself. Finally, the question should include what the end-user would like to hear back in the answer.” These guidelines would facilitate responses to questions, says Devaprasad. “The key is to include appropriate buzz words, which help determine who is best able to answer the question.”

Peter Cavallo of DENSO advises, “New end-users should not be intimidated when presenting questions to Ask the Experts. Questioners ought to include what they need to know for their application and what are they trying to achieve.” Cavallo notes that questions should include some specifics such as what speeds are required for an application, how parts are currently manufactured, as well as what problems are faced in the present manufacturing process. “Over the course of a few interviews, end-users will begin to see some valuable answers,” Cavallo submits.

Google it?
In the age of instant access to information on the Internet, why not just ask a robot question through Google? “Asking a robot expert gets information that has value without going through Google’s filtering process,” says Jim Devaprasad. “People who ask questions about robotics want answers from a trustworthy professional in the field. Because the answers are available to everyone, both the questioner and the professional responding can benefit.”

Peter Cavallo also sees the benefit for end-users in getting RIA member responses to their robot questions. “End-users could google their robot question but they will not get a personalized response as from Ask the Experts. The response in Ask the Experts is directed at the person who submitted the question.” Cavallo emphasizes that questioners can interact with the person responding to their question.
 
People new to industrial robotics inevitably have many questions and Ask the Experts provides useful answers. “Ask the Experts is an extremely valuable feature for not only the tough questions but also the easy ones. End-users want someone who can answer questions to help get closer to their goal of making a profit,” says Rick Brookshire, Senior Manager of Product Development and Engineering with EPSON Robots, Carson, California. Brookshire is particularly impressed by the fact that Ask the Experts is offered free of charge.

Building Relationships
Ask the Experts is not just an exchange of information, but a means to develop networks and to build trust within the robotics industry. Cavallo believes that participating in Ask the Experts is more than just a way to generate potential sales. “Ask the Experts gives robot makers and integrators a way of seeing which needs of end-users are not being addressed. By participating in Ask the Experts, DENSO has developed relationships which is more important than just making a sale. We have formed some very good relationships through Ask the Experts.”
 
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