Is anyone surprised the FAA is delaying UAS test site selection indefinitely?

I have to agree completely with the sentiments of Congressman Austria on this issue. The FAA is just dragging its feet.  The point of the test sites is to solve the issues of safety and privacy.  If these issues were completely worked out, we wouldn’t need test sites–do not pass go, do not collect more appropriations, proceed directly to airspace integration.

The point of the test sites is to work on these issues and give the general, civil, and commercial aviation community time to come to grips that some new craft are going to be joining their previously exclusive community.  Delaying the test site selection is the complete wrong approach.  The right approach is to begin testing–as most other developed countries already have.

How is privacy even the FAA’s jurisdiction?  In all seriousness, I hope that whatever regulations apply to UAS apply to cellphones.  I’m a lot more likely to have my privacy invaded through cell phone than through unmanned aircraft.

“Ask me anything: The answer is a robot! …I’m a roboticist.” -Dr. Rodney Brooks

On Friday, I had the pleasure of attending Rodney Brooks’ first public talk on the Baxter robot, “A New Class of Industrial Robots.”  Although, there wasn’t a great deal of new technical information available beyond what the barrage of press exclusives has already announced, it was a fascinating look at the thought process that went into building the Baxter.  I’ll attempt to share some of the ideas that he shared at Carnegie Mellon to best of my deficient note taking abilities.  You can can also watch the video here.

My general impression is that the Baxter is a real product.  That’s really exciting to see in robotics!  We don’t get true products all that often.  I mean this robot can be used by people who cannot code and don’t know how to do math.  You can use a Baxter at a basic level just by pressing some buttons and moving the Baxter’s arms.  A ‘power user’ might use the menu system to enable (or more likely disable) features that make the Baxter so easy to use.  A forthcoming software development kit will let the robotics engineers tinker if they like.  The overall impression I got however is that the Baxter is a not a fundamental breakthrough so much as a breakthrough product.  It is designed around a specific set of user needs, responds to their preferences, and doesn’t attempt to do everything.  I could see how it might delight people who need a box packed or something sorted.

Another interesting aspect of the Baxter is how it takes an alternative design approach to current industrial robots.  The Baxter focuses on tasks that have some degree of compliance.  Most industrial robots are focused on precision.  It will be interesting to see how these two classes of robots end up interacting, competing, and complementing one another.

ReThink has an ambition to bring back a lot of manufacturing value to the United States.  The idea that much of the drudgery in a factory can be completed at an all in cost of $3/hr definitely puts the economic rationale for taking production offshore into question.  We all know that there are tremendous efficiencies achieve from having production close the large markets and design centers, this will make it possible to further substitute capital for the lowest skill labor and create many more valuable manufacturing jobs in the United States.

“Advanced Manufacturing doesn’t mean manufacturing advanced stuff.”  Dr. Brooks pointed out that although employment in manufacturing has remained stable or declined over the last several decades, the output of American manufacturing has been on a nearly uninterrupted increase.  This has been driven, in part, by a march up the value chain into business to business and complex products.  Dr. Brooks hope that the Baxter will let us look at having

Why isn’t Baxter mobile?  First, Baxter doesn’t need to be mobile to fulfill its intended function and adding mobility probably would add cost and complexity that the customers don’t require.  Baxter can be moved on casters easily by a worker, but it doesn’t need to move on its own for most applications.  Second, Dr. Brooks’ non-compete agreement with iRobot prevented him from working on mobile robotics until recently.  Maybe, we’ll see a mobile Baxter soon.

Finally, I’m really curious to see how the end effector strategy plays out.  ReThink  is going to publish an interface that includes mechanical, electrical, and software specifications.  Currently they provide an end effector that appears to be only a two finger gripper that can be customized for size to some degree.  I’m curious if there will be a lot of end effectors that come out and to what extent the Baxter and ROS become a platform for further innovation in robotics.

The Baxter was designed in conscious analogy to the PC.  Will it usher in a new age of robotics the way the PC did?  From a business perspective will Baxter-type platforms become commoditized and can ReThink retain its edge?   Dr. Brooks was refreshingly humble about the future, but it was clear that he is optimistic and willing to learn more from the market for this disruptive product.

If you’re going to RoboBusiness have fun at the public unveiling of the robot!

Guess that’s not happening…

So I wonder how the EADS shareholders feel about taking a hit for a merger that never happened.  Oddly enough, it seems like the German government is actually looking out for shareholders in blocking the deal.  Most analysts couldn’t figure out why they were trying to do this.   EADS / Airbus does well enough on its own when not making blunders like the A380.  BAE does well on its own because it has access to the U.S. defense market in a way that a partially government owned continental firm would never have (see: tanker competition; see also: special alliance).  I’m still puzzled by the logic of this.

There are great mergers out there in our field.  Pittsburgh robotics firm RedZone has gone on acquisition kick and bought up companies that provide software and solutions for larger diameter pipes to build a complete sewer solution.  iRobot has bought Evolution Robotics when it seems like someone else’s mousetrap had some cool features.  Both of these create value for the company and have clear economic rationales underlying them.

Let’s hope that robotics can keep our business combinations on the path to having economic rationale.

Why American women are too smart to become robotics engineers

The lack of women in robotics is quite palpable.  I’m not going to quote statistics about the lack of women in robotics because the readers of this blog have been in robotics engineering shops and have eyes—it is that bad.  This is a loss for all of us.  Not only do the women in robotics often have a disproportionate impact, but also the missing women are indicative of a deeper cultural problem that hurts both male and female participants in our industry.

Beyond the issues of opportunity, fairness, and attracting the best and brightest in our field, a lack of women is an indicator of a deep seated cultural problem that is impairing our efforts to make the world a better place.  This insular culture, which robotics shares with many other engineering-centric industries, harms and alienates many men too.  The lack of women in robotics should be viewed as a flashing red warning light of a much deeper problem that affects everyone, rather than just a women’s problem.

Another Knowledge Industry Grapples With A Similar Challenge

While I was at Deloitte, the firm was endlessly bragging about its Women’s Initiate, they called WIN.  Before the turn of the millennium, the partners realized that they had a problem.  At all the ‘working’ ranks of the firm, Deloitte was doing a great job hiring and retaining talented people of both genders.  However, when it came to senior managers and partner level positions, the women all disappeared.

What Deloitte discovered when they looked into this problem was not discrimination.  The problem was that all the top women that the firm wanted to promote were leaving, even though they were being offered the same deal as the men.  Becoming a partner or principal at Deloitte today is arduous, but before WIN it was grueling and brutal.  Basically, becoming principal at Deloitte requires a huge commitment to have consulting be one’s life, but before WIN there was pretty much one way this commitment could look.  Women knew what was required and were more than capable, but they were saying, ‘Screw this, I don’t want to put up with your abuse just to sit at the top of the pyramid and perpetuate it, I want a family (or an impact in the world, or a life).’   So they were leaving the firm.

Deloitte took a hard look at the firm and decided that the path to becoming partner was counterproductively rigid.  They launched WIN and made the workplace much more humane for everyone.  The firm started retaining more talented women and they have thousands of women principals today.  But more interestingly, they also started retaining more of the talented men who had been leaving too, but ‘just weren’t cut out for consulting.’  Deloitte fervently believes—and their impressive growth in the last decade testifies—that they created a much more effective organization.

What had showed up as a women’s problem was actually a firm-wide culture problem.  It turned out that many more men were willing to compromise their performance and risk losing their marriages, families, and personal lives over the firm’s culture problem.   There was nothing ‘wrong’ with the women, nothing they needed to be taught or given to help them get ahead.  They were just not willing to put up with such an unnecessarily inhumane system, while many men were willing to live with it.  As a result, the firm got sub-optimal performance.

The question that Deloitte should have been asking was not, ‘What’s wrong with our women that they’re not making partner?’  Or even, ‘What’s wrong with our men that they don’t help the women make partner,’ it was really, ‘What’s wrong with our men that they’re willing to make partner under sweatshop working conditions?’   I fear that we’re at a similar impasse with respect to the engineering fields.

The Deeper Cultural Problem In Robotics Engineering

Isn’t it odd that we don’t need to make a special effort to interest women in law, accounting, medicine, or the like?  These fields have similar intellectual requirements and levels of drudgery to engineering.  Yet despite comparatively massive efforts to interest women in engineering, they are not entering the field in anything like the numbers we would expect.  And why are American students—including men—not enrolling in engineering fields at the rate that foreign students do?

There is strong social signaling in undergraduate schools that discourages most women and many men from even attempting the study of engineering.  Perhaps they realize that getting an engineering degree can be a long, unrewarding slog when compared to the experience that most undergraduates have.  Perhaps, they have a sense this narrow technical view is carried on beyond undergraduate.  I do not believe that being willing put up with this kind of experience is necessary, and is perhaps counterproductive, to being a great robotics engineer.

Engineering courses are used to screen out anyone who is not willing to devote long hours studying tough courses that do not reward students just for their interest in the subject.  Those who are considering law, business, or medicine as an alternative career may not want to risk their GPAs even trying engineering courses.   No one would bother becoming a robotics engineer unless she had an innate sense that she had a special calling in robotics.  This sense of calling is common among the engineering superstars, both male and female.  Though the current method of engineering education may be adequate for the superstars, this method of education likely alienates many people who could make great contributions to engineering.

We now realize that training medical residents more than 80 hours a week is not productive—engineering isn’t different.  Silicon Valley is starting to see sunlight, humane schedules, leadership opportunities, and pleasant workplaces that promote social interaction as the minimum conditions for engineering productivity.  Colleges such as Olin which have experimented with new (read more people centered) ways of teaching engineering have seen many women enroll.  These are all signs that there is another way to do engineering.  We are starting to see that engineering can be altered to treat engineers and students like social beings, without sacrificing technical rigor.

By attracting people to engineering who are sensitive to the way that others treat them, we will also attract people who are sensitive to their colleagues, customers, and business partners.  Without these engineers who understand their impact on others, engineering will forever be solving the wrong problem.  Engineering education and culture are far too important to all our futures to be left only to left-brained males.  If we let engineering be a secret club that no woman without an extreme commitment would want to join, we will fail to harness engineering’s full potential to improve our society.

 

Avenues for further investigation:

How can robotics companies accelerate the production of an inclusive engineer culture?

What benefits and employee flexibilities have measureable results on engineering output?

How concentrated among the ‘usual suspects’ schools is robotics engineering hiring?

Does hiring outside of the engineering department’s immediate network improve or degrade performance of the engineering organization?

Do robotics engineering organizations with more women tend to do better?  (Hypothesis:  There is positive correlation, but not to be confused with causation.)

Marketing 3.0: Puffery so extreme it is unreadable

I recently had the misfortune of reading a 20 page excerpt of Philip Kotler’s Marketing 3.0.   You’d have to pay me far more than my standard hourly rate to induce me to read more of it.

Kotler is one of the most famous marketing professors at any business school.  His text book Marketing Management is not only in the standard today (the 14th edition is on my shelf for instance), but was also the text book of many of today’s marketing professors when they first studied marketing.  If this man is the academic standard bearer for marketing, I’m starting to understand why people have such a low opinion of marketing.  Current thought about marketing, by marketing’s most famous experts, tends not to be rigorous or practical.

Apparently, this begins with a lack of understanding of what marketing is for.

In Part III, we share their thoughts on several key implementations of Marketing 3.0 for solving global issues such as wellness, poverty, and environmental sustainability and how corporations can contribute by implementing the human-centric business model.

I’m as much a believer that corporations can change the world as anyone, but marketing as a discipline discovers and stimulates demand.  Period, full stop.  Corporations can have a good effect on society and have done a great deal to improve the human condition.  I’m  glad that marketers slinging sugar water or floor wax can feel good about themselves, but for those of us in emerging industries that really will change the world, we need our marketers to have a laser focus.

The confusion continues when he discusses actual products.  Apart from shameless promotion of S.C. Johnson (Kotler is the S.C. Johnson and Son, Professor of Marketing) he seems to be quite confused about the real market drivers of products.  He goes on at length about Timberland’s social responsibility program.  I don’t know if this had any impact on Timberland–perhaps it did.  However, I’ve never heard anything about this, but I have seen tons of earned media for Timberland based on catering to gangters, rappers, and wannabes. Nary a word about this.  I’ve seen maybe 1-2 actual outdoorsmen wear Timberlands in my life, but hundreds if not thousands of wannabe toughs wearing them–admittedly not a scientific survey, but it is at least more than anecdote.   You know what would be useful in this discussion?  Data!  Kotler and his co-authors do not provide that though.

If you’re interested in creating demand for specific robotic products, please skip Kotler and his disciples.  You would be far better served to read someone who comes out of the start-up world and has a rigorous, measurement driven approach to marketing.   Steve Blank, Eric Ries, and Geoffrey Moore all tackle marketing challenges in a much more practical and implementable fashion.  They are also concerned primarily with keeping businesses that really do have the potential to change the world in business long enough for them to do that.  To them, marketing doesn’t need to be a special calling with magic thinking about how the discipline is going to change the world.  To them, marketing needs to fulfill its business function, discovering and creating demand, at a minimum of cost and as quickly as possible.

No finance or operations professional would tout finance or operations 3.0 as being fundamentally different from all that came before it.  These disciplines have highly measurable results in the world that they can easily explain to stakeholders outside the discipline that take the time to understand.  Marketing should be no different–be very wary of anyone who says that it is about the human spirit.

Four Steps to the Epiphany: the Moby Dick of start-up books

Image: Front Cover; Source: Amazon

If your experience of Moby Dick was that you were constantly aware that you were reading one of the best books of all time that was opening your mind to new ideas if only you could keep your eyes open, you understand.  Four Steps to the Epiphany is the great white whale of start-up books for a reason.  Although it is not nearly as easy to read as his disciple Eric Ries’s more famous book, The Lean Start-up, it is much more systematic.  This books has some profound insights about understanding why some start-ups can do it one way and others need to do it completely opposite.

Instead of abstracting and generalizing the insights, Blank focuses on the issues of managing under extreme uncertainty in their native context.  He tackles every aspect of the non-engineering side of the business.  Most of the book is about how to systematically eliminate the market risk for your product, this will be somewhat familiar to you if you’ve read the Lean Start-up.  However, seeing the original idea and seeing it laid out in full detail, in the context it originally sprang from adds a lot of richness and practicality to the idea.  Blank devotes a good deal of time to understanding how to make technology push and market pull work together.  He covers when to go for broke spending money to enter a market and when to hold back and let the customers come to you.  Most importantly, this comes with some practical steps to discover when to do each.  He even covers how to start converting to mature company once you’ve almost made it.

Much like Melville, Steve Blank will say something really profound and insightful, then launch into a description of whaling–er, uh–start-up processes that are needed to implement that idea.  This can make the book a tough slog, because reading a process description around bed time can definitely have soporific effect.  However, this tough slog is absolutely worth it if your a practitioner in the world of technology start-ups.  You can’t hand it to your cousin that works at a big company and expect him to read it.  This is meant for the start-up community.  If you are a start-up practitioner, get this book and make yourself read it.   You will not be disappointed.  I expect my copy to become much more dog-eared than it already is before it gets confiscated for some future company museum.

So how does this relate to robotics…

Reading this book will further persuade you that many if not most management teams of robotics companies don’t have a clue.  You’ll even be able to look at robotics success stories and realize–wow–compared to software our industry’s state of management practice is pretty dismal.  Many successful robotics companies just fell bass-ackwards into their success.  Many were product driven companies to a fault that were able to expensively keep trying until they finally hit a success.  This is not the same thing as systematically eliminating and consciously balancing market versus technical risk to produce the greatest chance of creating successful business that uses robotic technology to make money and make the world a better place.

We’ve got a long way to go as an industry.  Luckily, now that we know that there’s nothing inherently ‘capital intensive’ about the robotics industry we can start addressing why we have so often screwed it up before.

Is a dollar worth a dollar on a tech company’s balance sheet?

Previously, dear reader, you and I have discovered that robotics companies are firmly entrenched in the knowledge economy and their assets look like other knowledge economy companies’s assets.  Robotics companies only hold only a limited amount of real assets but lots of financial assets.

As a related question, what is the value of the cash (and financial assets) on the balance sheet to investors?  There might be several issues with holding so much cash.  Particularly, money in a company should be employed making more money, ‘earning or returning’ as the saying goes.   Are there valid reasons to hold so much cash?  And if so, how should we value the cash that knowledge economy companies hold?

Cash Is King! (Or at least a founding father)

Bottom line up-front:  Valuations are always wrong.  What’s interesting is how they are wrong.  Assuming a dollar is worth a dollar is as good a rule as any, but is almost always wrong.  Nobody is really sure which way (too much or too little) it is wrong.  Below, is an elaboration of some of the issues with valuing cash which may come into play when valuing particular companies.  (And you thought that at least cash of all things had a fixed value  —  don’t we all wish!)

There are various criticisms of excess cash on the balance sheet, below are some of the most common.

1)  Holding the extra cash reduces returns, i.e. to buy into the business you have to buy a pile of cash beyond what is ‘necessary’ to run the business.  Further, the rate of return on cash has been essentially zero and certainly below inflation lately, so holding the portfolio the stock represents of a highly profitable business, plus cash must necessarily produce a lower expected return than just the business.

2)  Because of agency problems, management may be incentivized to use the cash to reduce volatility or ‘save’ the business if it falls on hard times, even if the investors could get a markedly higher rate of return in the market.  From an investor’s point of view this would be systematically wasting money.  Employees, customers, management, and trading partners might have a very different view.

3)  Holding lots of cash is said to signal that the company does not have profitable investment opportunities commensurate with the cash that it is generating and the company’s growth may slow in the future.  Further, holding lots of cash signals that you don’t know, or are ignoring, the traditional Anglo-Saxon business administration.  English speaking investors generally expect management to maximize monetary returns over the forecasting horizon and put shareholder interests ahead of all others.

Some countervailing points that you will often hear are along the following lines. 

A)  Although holding cash reduces returns, for a volatile security like a fast growing knowledge economy company, having cash on the balance sheet dramatically reduces volatility.  If investors want more exposure to the underlying business for the same initial investment, lever-up.  Since we are talking about cash holdings, buying on margin is almost a perfect antidote to management’s lackadaisical cash management policies if you feel that way.  [But seriously, who is their right mind thinks you need to lever-up when buying tech stocks?]

B)  Although management might ‘burn’ cash saving a failing business, which would be better redistributed to investors, more likely, they are going to have the flexibility to engage in acquisitions and new ventures without having to deal with the whims of the security markets.  [Has anyone seen a rational market lately?  Please let me know.]

Or has anyone read the Wall Street Journal?  Tech companies are routinely attacked for having their fixed life fund investors exit—Groupon and Facebook each got front page hatchet jobs over the past two days with nary a mention that these funds had been planning to sell now for, oh say, 8-10 years!  Talk about journalistic malpractice.  Would you want to go to the public markets in that environment?  I sure wouldn’t.  If I was management, I’d say that if investors are that irrational, I’ll keep the cash and do what they should have done with the money.

C)  Finally, although cash on hand may sometimes signal that the companies are running out of investment opportunities, it certainly signals to would be competitors that the said company is in a position to stick around for a long time and bitterly contest any erosion of their market position.  This may greatly enhance the value of the underlying business asset.

D)  This is a successful tech company.  It is run by the founders, for the founders (i.e. management).  If you don’t want the privilege of investing and taking whatever returns the founders deign to give, please step aside and allow the next investor to purchase stock.  But this isn’t really a justification.  Founders are investors too, especially once the company goes public, with theoretically the same motivations as other investors since their stake is highly liquid.

Further research on technology companies and their cash management policies should address the following issues:

I)     Are there structural reasons beyond the creation of new businesses and defense of existing businesses for technology/knowledge companies to hold lots of cash?  It does not occur to me that there is anything about a maturing knowledge business that seems to require massive amounts of cash.  Law firms and accounting firms do not seem to hold too much cash, but they are also typically private and can make much more drastic changes than public companies.

II)   Are there frictions between the interests of various classes of investors?  Particularly when there is a founder controlled/managed company, cash on the balance sheet is probably as good to them from a control perspective as cash in the bank and better from a tax perspective.  Should investment banks or others creating the classes of stock have new mechanisms to deal with this?

III)  What are the true limits on investment opportunities?  My firsthand observation has been that the greatest constraint on growth of robotics companies is management attention.  It may be that most technology companies have massively profitable investment opportunities, but management attention is engaged on current projects and hiring into the management circle is not that easy.  What is the needed resource to change this?  How can cash be used to obtain this resource?  Can it?  Is passion required?

IV)  Are there ways that management could resolve some of the market frictions that require them to hold lots of cash?  The public markets seem to mercilessly abuse tech companies—no they don’t look like utilities, but the highs and lows that they are pushed to seems unjustified—there just doesn’t seem to be enough new information about their future prospects to justify either one.  Can management take steps to make access to public markets, particularly debt markets more reliable?  Could banks make money by providing massive, typically undrawn, lines of credit that would provide much of the same protections to management?

Which VCs are investing in robotics? Here is the list.

the instrument of venture investment

source: SEC.gov

My overview of the Firms Behind the Hizook 2011 VC in Robotic List has graciously been published at Hizook.

Bottom line:  We don’t have a cadre of dedicated robotics investors, but we can get investment from the industries that serve as our customers.

I wish you all luck in getting some of that VC Cash.  …on second thought, no, actually, I don’t–I  wish you all luck in signing up major partners who will give you progress payments to complete your product without diluting your investment.

But whatever your situation I hope that you use the appropriate capital structure to make lots of robots, lots money, and lots of good in the world.

Robotics capital intensive?! What are you smoking? Don’t believe it.

Robotic manufacturing is not capital intensive, contrary to the popular wisdom.  (Looking at you HBS.)

Unless someone can bring data to the contrary, we should treat this issue as thoroughly decided against the  conventional wisdom.  As we saw previously, robotics companies do not need a lot of fixed assets.  Now, we will see why people who blithely repeat the conventional wisdom that robotics companies are capital intensive are wrong–even if they claim robotics companies are hiding their true use of capital.

First off, robotics companies’ balance sheets look like technology companies’–the internet kind, not the aerospace/industrial kind.  Robotics companies have lots of cash and relatively little else.

Second, robotics companies have gross margins that even companies that don’t make stuff would envy.  The robotics gross margin would probably be even higher if iRobot and Aerovironment were not defense contractors.   There is a lot of pressure to bury as much expense as allowed into the cost of goods due to defense contract rules.   Intuitive and Cognex’s margins are around 75%.  They are even beating Google on gross margin!

Although, it does appear that robotics companies have a bit longer cash conversion cycle than the basket chosen for comparison here, their cash cycle appears to be in line with other complex manufacturers.  Plus, the robotics companies are holding so much cash their management may just not really care to push the conversion cycle down.

Look at the cash required to sell aircraft though!  Manned or unmanned it looks like it takes forever to get paid for making planes.

Although robotics companies have physical products, the value of a robot is in the knowledge and information used to create it and operate it.  The materials are nothing special.  Consequently, these companies look like part of the knowledge economy–few real assets, lots of cash, and huge attention to their workforce.   Next time someone tells you robotics companies are capital intensive, ask them to share what they’re smoking–it’s probably the good stuff–because they aren’t using data.

One thing that a venture capitalist may mean when he says that robotics is capital intensive is that it generally takes a long time and lots of money to develop a viable product in robotics.  This may be true, but it is not really the same thing as being capital intensive.   This observation should cause a lot of soul-searching within our industry.  What the venture capitalist is telling us is that we–as an industry–cannot reliably manage our engineering, product development, and business structures to produce financial results.

This is why the conventional wisdom is dangerous.  It suggests that the lack of investors, money, and talent flowing into our industry isn’t our fault and there’s not much we can do about it.  That is what needs to change in robotics.  We need to get better at management.  We need to start building companies quicker and producing returns for our investors.  If we do that the money, talent, and creativity will start pouring into industry.  Then robotics can change the world.

Notes on Data and Method
Data Source: Last 10-k

Method:

Accounts Receivable = All balance sheet accounts that seem to be related to a past sale and future cash, so accounts receivable plus things like LinkedIn’s deferred commissions.

Cash + Investments = All balance sheets I could identify as being financial investments not required to operate.   Assume all companies require zero cash to operate.

Did not account for advances in cash conversion cycle.

U.S. Robotic Stocks: Speculators Wanted (the real kind, not the financial kind)

The first part of the robotic stock tracker is up.  The index is coming!

First observation:  It is amazing how volatile robotic stocks are and how much idiosyncratic behavior each stock has exhibited since the start of the year.   With this much volatility, one would expect robotic stocks to produce market beating performance over the long run, but they certainly haven’t done it so far this year.  In the short run, it is very difficult to value real assets that have uncertain financial prospects.  In the long run, I’m banking on an extremely bright future, powered by robots.