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Smalltime Superheroes

It looks like the suit of armor Tony Stark wore in Ironman. But instead of flying up into the stratosphere, it allows an explorer to dive deep into sea, and go two and half DAYS without surfacing? Give up? The Nuytco Exosuit ( is a self-contained life support system. It can withstand up to 6 tons of pressure and allow its wearer to explore the ocean depths through its articulated rotary joints. Its high-speed fiber optic network leads to the surface so that scientists on board ship can see what the diver sees. It’s made of aluminum alloy that feels virtually weightless when underwater.[1]

And then there’s PETMAN. PETMAN, built by Boston Dynamics (, is an anthropomorphic robot designed for testing chemical protection clothing. PETMAN moves freely; walking, bending and engaging in clothing-stressing calisthenics. PETMAN also simulates human physiology within the protective suit by controlling temperature, humidity and sweating, to provide realistic test conditions. All to ensure that when humans wear those suits in dicey situations, they are not exposed to dangerous chemicals.

Finally, there’s Baxter, who’ll take those rote, repetitive tasks and do them without complaint. He’s (It’s?) the world’s first interactive production robot, says its creator, Rethink Robotics ( With Baxter, no traditional programming is required. Rather, it’s manually trainable by in-house staff, and can be retrained as tasks change. Baxter’s compliant arms and force detection means it adapts to variable environments, “feeling” anomalies so that production continues without variation.

These robots seem like the stuff of superhero stories, but unlike the Ironman suit they are not just the toys of millionaires and multinationals; they are now the workhorses for small manufacturers supplementing, not replacing, their workforce. Robots have been around in manufacturing for quite some time, but are now becoming ubiquitous in even the smallest of manufacturing operations. The trend to more automation in manufacturing is driving this usage. For example, there’s a jewelry manufacturer in Louisiana that uses a robot to deliver tools to employees on the shop floor. And there’s a machine shop in Chicago that has a robot move metal pieces in and out of a cutting machine.[2]  Like Baxter, these “flexible” robots adapt to their environments and do job tasks that carry very little value to an operation, in and of themselves, but are critical to production and must be done correctly. These robots free up employees so that they can take on the “thinking” tasks of the workplace and allow people to be the “value add” in manufacturing operations.

Of course, there are some naysayers who claim that these robots are taking jobs from humans, but I (and many others) see them as complimentary to the work people can and should be doing, e.g. creating these robots, inventing new things, and working on the brain-busting challenges of our times.

In fact, it is not the robots that are the superheroes of this story, but the people who thought of them, made them and provided a place for them in our world to allow us to do more, make more and think more. We are the real superheroes.

[1] A Superhero of Sorts in a Hunt for Artifacts. The New York Times. September 8, 2014. [2] Robots Work Their Way Into Small Factories. The Wall Street Journal. September 19, 2014.

About the author

Stacey Wagner

Guest blogger Stacey Jarrett Wagner has more than 20 years of experience in workforce development, conducting research and providing strategic thinking and technical assistance on workforce development issues.

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