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Wise Makes Fetch Robotics Happen

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When describing some of the past projects she’s worked on, Melonee Wise says “I have had the opportunity” to develop algorithms, libraries and hardware for an autonomous boat, autonomous car, personal robot platforms, zero-G experiments, battlebots and several low-cost platforms. It’s cool that she sees these as opportunities, because that is such a positive way to think about innovation in manufacturing or any other industry. This is just one way in which Wise stands out.

Referring to herself as a “robot ninja,” Wise also is CEO of Fetch Robotics, which is an award-winning intralogistics automation company. Fetch is a pioneer in on-demand automation, which deploys safe, reliable and versatile autonomous mobile robots for the warehousing, intralogistics and manufacturing markets. Wise also was the Cofounder of Unbounded Robotics, Manager of Robot Development at Willow Garage, where she led a team of engineers developing next-generation robot hardware and software, including ROS, the PR2 and TurtleBot.

Wise recently took the time to complete an email interview with Manufacturing Best Practices, discussing what it takes to be a roboticist, the developments of her career path and what the industry can do to attract more people to engineering and manufacturing.

Manufacturing Best Practices: What drove you to follow this career path?

Melonee Wise: My background is in engineering, but I had an early interest in robotics specifically because it’s one of the only fields where you can build something from the ground up, put code on it and then see it do something physical in the real world. Robotics is the pinnacle of engineering: the best in the field are educated in electrical and/or mechanical engineering as well as computer science — you need to be a renaissance person in terms of engineering to actually be able to be a roboticist. 

I started off in research initially, but I quickly figured out I wanted to do something with a bigger impact. Eventually, I ended up at a robotics research lab called Willow Garage working on a lot of different projects, and we found the biggest traction in the manufacturing and logistics spaces.

MBP: Did you have particular goals or plans when you co-founded Unbounded Robotics?

MW: With Unbounded, I was looking to apply the skills I’d mastered as an engineer to build a robotics company. It was my first leap into entrepreneurship; I felt like I had done all the engineering I was interested in doing and this was the next challenge I was ready for. It was a crash course in entrepreneurship, and I still use the lessons I learned there every day.

MBP: What about when you came to Fetch? What drew you to this position?

MW: From the start, my goal with Fetch was to build real robots that do real work with real people in the real world. At the early stages of the company, when we talked with lots of people in manufacturing and logistics about their pain points, we realized that most companies were struggling with the same challenges: high labor turnover and the cost of deploying safe automation tools. We believed that with AMRs, customers would be able to address those challenges while eliminating a lot of those add-on costs – and still get inherent safety benefits compared to other automation tools.

MBP: What gets you excited about your job now?

MW: I’m most excited by the challenge of building and running a company. At our stage and size, the company is changing constantly, and there are new opportunities and obstacles every month that take new skills and ways of thinking to address. I love the challenge of building a successful company. Again, I felt like I had done the engineering I wanted to do and was ready for a new phase. I’m the kind of person that chases challenges. 

MBP: What would you say helps to drive innovation at Fetch?

MW: Our culture drives the innovation.

At Fetch, we’re trying to provide our customers with automation that they can configure and manage themselves in a much simpler way than was previously thought possible. We want to provide a solution that can be deployed in hours, provide value right away, and enable our customers themselves to improve or iterate as needed. This is a really ambitious mission, and throughout our company, we have a unique culture built around people’s fearlessness, and their desire to solve hard problems. It’s tricky to find people driven to work on solutions to the end and not just think of things in terms of a research paper – so the culture is essential.

MBP: What do you look for when hiring new people? Is there a certain sensibility that is important for this industry?

MW: My main goal when hiring is to find people who are excited by difficult problems, because hiring those sorts of people is crucial for maintaining the culture we’ve built at Fetch. In interviews, I like to get insights into how people tackle difficult problems, and often ask people about the hardest things they’ve worked on.  

MBP: Last year during a panel at SXSW, you mentioned that the industry needs more engineers. What do you think the industry and education can do to attract more people to this field?

MW: We need to change the brand for engineering. There’s such a stigma around the field – most people assume they aren’t smart enough to be an engineer, and that if they were to become one, they’d live a life of loneliness or awkwardness. In reality, engineering is one of the most creative pursuits around, and I believe many people would love engineering if they were given a chance to explore it. To drive more people into engineering, we need to change our cultural stereotypes around what it means to be an engineer, and what it takes to become one.  

MBP: Along the same lines, what can be done to attract more women to the field?

MW: Similarly, we need to change the cultural framing for women in society. Starting as children, the culture of play for boys and girls is vastly different: boys get blocks, girls get dolls — and this creates challenges in perceptions of what’s possible for them. Boys are equipped with a toy that helps them with spatial reasoning from day one, and cultural stereotypes often prevent girls from getting that same early exposure. It’s a really hard problem to solve, but it’s possible. If you look at other cultures that don’t have those same stigmas of what girls “should do,” there are more women engineers in those cultures than you see in the United States.

MBP: Other than getting to adopt something like “Robot Ninja” as your job title, what are some things about engineering and manufacturing that might attract students, things they may not realize about the field?

MW: Most people don’t realize how much creative thinking it takes to be an engineer or roboticist. We try to make it clear. It really starts with the industry and problem

first, and then thinking about the ways we can improve the way we work. That’s where robotics comes in, and there’s a huge potential. From a pure manufacturing side, it’s important to introduce students to the tools available and the skills they need to build. This will give them the ability to think through the questions of robotics and apply their own creativity to the field.

MBP: Even if students do not want to go the traditional educational route through universities, in your view, what are some good ways for them to gain education and experience for this field?

MW: There are many different educational approaches available to aspiring engineers today. Beyond traditional routes like college and grad school, it’s important to empower individuals to learn about engineering through on-the-job training or through abstracted engineering processes.

This is one of the side benefits of [the Fetch] solution, as it enables employees at manufacturing companies who may not have engineering degrees to implement AMR-based automation through simple drag-and-drop software. 

MBP: The manufacturing industry is struggling with the lack of labor, but what bright spots do you see in the industry?

MW: It’s an exciting time for the manufacturing industry, which is transforming at a rapid clip. The newer forms of automation that Fetch and others are creating allow humans to do higher-value, more creative tasks instead of manual or low-value tasks like pushing a cart back and forth. And as a result, we’re becoming capable of producing evermore impressive products while also enabling higher job satisfaction. 

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