August 20, 2021
Marco Chacin
Robotics, Autonomous Systems, Factory Automation and Motion Control Specialist
Airbus

Transcript

Stuart Black:

I had a wide ranging conversation this week with Marco Chacin, who is currently the principal robotics engineer for Airbus. Marco started from humble beginnings in Venezuela, and his love for Robotics at an early age, ended up taking him all around the world, working at such companies as KUKA, NASA and currently Airbus in Wales, where he lives with his family. This conversation is all about the exciting fast moving field of robotics and the impact it will have on all of our lives. I hope you enjoy this chat as much as I did from Red-fern Media, this is Remake Manufacturing.

Stuart Black:

My guest this week is Marco Chacin, the principal robotics engineer for Airbus currently based in North Wales. Marco is originally from Venezuela, but he's worked all over the world, particularly in Japan, where he got his PhD in Aerospace engineering. He has a hugely impressive CV that includes roles in robotics and automation at KUKA Robotics, Aerotek, MathWorks Cyberdyne and Toyota, to name just a few. Marco, welcome to the show.

Marco Chacin:

Thanks for having me.

Stuart Black:

So, you started fairly humbly in back in Venezuela, but you're now one of the leading principal robotics and automation engineers in the world. So what first attracted you to the world of robotics?

Marco Chacin:

I think I was also very curious as a kid. I remember reading books from my dad. My dad also specialized in Computer Science. So I remember reading books and getting involved in technology and as any other kid, I remember watching many cartoons that came from Japan at the time, and so I got very keen on watching this huge robots battling monsters and things like that. I was always curious as to how these things would work. And I guess that's where my interest for robotics came through and it stayed with me all along. I'm still very passionate about those things and so are my kids today.

Stuart Black:

That's so great when something inspires you in your childhood and then your dream becomes your life basically.

Marco Chacin:

Absolutely, I think I've been very lucky on being able to do what I want, to do what I like and obviously I've had great opportunities to do so.

Stuart Black:

And so I take it you are now working on those huge robots that you saw when you were a child.

Marco Chacin:

Well, I'm working on fairly big robots to be honest, some of them actually our systems are weighed several tons, for sure, but obviously not on the same, let's say the same shape or the same form that those I watched when I was a kid.

Stuart Black:

Well, we'll get into some of the robots that you are working on a little bit later, but just for now, just tell us your love of robotics, how has it changed the course of your life?

Marco Chacin:

So, robotics has been basically the catalyst of what I've done all my life. It is the thing that kind of brought me to where I am today, it's that passion I had for it. It's one of those things that you're constantly challenged about. I remember being at uni back in the late '90s, and then people would tell me, why are you doing this, if it's not something you can directly apply to it, right? I mean, Venezuela historically has been an oil producing country. So, robotics is not perhaps the one thing people want to do, they want to be working in the oil industry. But I was on the other side of that and say, look, this is what I want to do. I don't know where this is going to take me at the time, but it's my passion.

Marco Chacin:

So, I kind of followed that, tried to learn as much as I could and it's taken me all over the world quite literally. I've been to many places just because I've been to a conference or presenting a paper or having a meeting with some customer or some supplier in many stages of my career. So it's changed my life completely, to be honest with you.

Stuart Black:

And a big part of that journey was in Japan. Do you want to tell us a little bit about KUKA, the huge factory over there, what's that all about?

Marco Chacin:

Most of my professional life, I spend in Japan at this point. KUKA has, to be honest in Asia they have a big presence, as you may recall they were bought by a Chinese company back in 2016. So, the actual big factory is in China, is near Shanghai. However, the operation they have in Japan, it's fairly small and it's because they have really big competition with the domestic manufacturers in Japan. Japan leads the world in industrial robots, right? So, it's very difficult to compete with them. However, it was a very challenging position to do as I said. We were very few engineers, we needed to wear many hats on every single job. It was very enriching, but ultimately it taught me a lot of things about being committed to deliver and being able to deliver quality to the customer.

Marco Chacin:

It was the only way for us to compete with the big players that we had right in our backyard. So, it's some intelligent that I still have today. I'm very committed to seeing a job all the way through the end and not leave it halfway through or something. When you're in the company as big as Airbus, it's easy to get distracted by other things, and you get moved and you get reassigned. I like to stay true to what I'm doing and try to see the whole thing all the way to the end. So, that's perhaps the one thing that I brought from Japan into what I do today.

Stuart Black:

And you also worked for Toyota out there. What did they teach you?

Marco Chacin:

So, Toyota, I think it was to be honest a rough initiation to my professional life because it was my first real job out of the university, right out of my PhD degree, I went into that and it was, let's say working on a big corporation, learning the ropes of how to behave in an environment like that those are tools that I still use today. I will admit though that I wasn't ready for it when I actually did it, 14 years ago. But today, understanding how other corporations like that work has helped me a lot into what I do today here at Airbus.

Stuart Black:

And how did you find Japan generally? Was it easy for a Venezuelan to fit in with Japanese culture?

Marco Chacin:

I think it was easy for me because I was very passionate about the Japanese culture at the time. I mean, the way I got to Japan it was because I got a scholarship to get that PhD back in the day. And I got to tell you, so you arrive to Japan in the same plane with all the other students are coming with you to do this, to take on this adventure. And I got to tell you, there was nobody happier than me on that day that I had finally arrived in Japan. And I took it all that like that. I was very open to adapting to the new culture, trying new things, meeting new people. I went there at the time with my wife and we had kids and we really well adapted to the life there. So, I really enjoyed it. I miss it. Sometimes I miss it more than I miss Venezuela for obvious reasons obviously. The situation over there is not that great, but it's really an amazing place. There's nothing like it in the world.

Stuart Black:

So tell us where we are today then with robotics and how the field has evolved over recent years. What's going on?

Marco Chacin:

I think what we're seeing today is that in my view obviously, what we're seeing today is that robots have gotten to a point in which physically speaking, they are at their peak performance, right? I mean, you see now these amazing robots on YouTube from Boston Dynamics or other companies like Honda or Toyota even, that they can do this amazing things that you do. Then you see them going up and down the stairs or running or jumping or doing back flips even. So, we see that on one end, robots are doing amazing things. In terms of industrial applications, robots have not changed that much over the last 20 years, which means that really in terms of peak performance of what they can do physically we're at the top of where we have ever been.

Marco Chacin:

The transformation that we're seeing today is more on services, on software and how the software now interacts with the hardware. Now we have higher performance processors and high-performance systems that can go toe to toe with what these robots can do nowadays. So, I think we're seeing a transformation of this mechanical, let's say mechanical system companies of all like KUKA or Fanako or Yaskawa, evolving into companies that can not only provide you with hardware, but also give you the software and the tools to actually do better things with those devices and actually improve your productivity and help your personnel in order to be more effective and better and produce more, and then obviously make more money.

Stuart Black:

And is artificial intelligence a big part of that?

Marco Chacin:

It is. I mean, you see now that other companies that are not traditionally hardware or industrial companies like Nvidia, for example, they're now producing systems that are able to process that information much quicker than before and give a real output that will even official to a robotic system like that. So, you see this not only for actual robots, but also you'll see that on the autonomous cars or autonomous vehicles that you see now in that field. They're using GPU units that are able to process information much faster and so you see how that has impacted the whole marketplace and the whole landscape of robotics and how people make money with it.

Stuart Black:

So how soon until Skynet takes over?

Marco Chacin:

Well, I'm not a proponent of that actually happening, to be honest with you. I think that it's an interesting thought and the reason I don't see it is because as much as we have developed robots that can perform amazing feats, there is a divide between what robots can do physically and what robots can do in terms of thinking, right? So, the real intelligent robots quote-on-quote are the ones you have in your house, your Alexas, your Siris, your Google homes, right? These things that can understand natural language and can interact and understand what people do. It's far more intelligent than any robot we've ever produced. So until those two distinct lines converge, and then we give them a gun or something, I don't see this doomsday scenario of a Skynet or Terminator happening, to be honest with you.

Stuart Black:

Okay. So, we can all breathe easy at least on that score. But tell us, what developments are you most excited about in real robotics today?

Marco Chacin:

So, as you said at the beginning, I'm an aerospace engineer. I'm very passionate about space as well. So every time that NASA and JPL, they launch something new, to me it's almost an event, right? Watching the new robots land on Mars, and I follow the MERs in 2004 when they arrived to Mars as well. So those things are always really interesting to me, and the way that the problems are solved in the most simplistic way and yet it's the most effective way as well, right? So they do it from here. Something goes wrong, they have to fix it remotely. So there are provisions for that way before you actually send the machine to another planet.

Marco Chacin:

So, those things are interesting. The robots I mentioned before from Boston Dynamics, that you see the capabilities that we are able to have today, robots jumping and moving very lifelike. I mean, it's almost like there's somebody inside, right? Moving and jumping and doing those flips. And also in terms of industrial automation, I like what companies like Arrival are doing in terms of, they have this concept of micro factories that I really like because it enables you a more lean approach and in a different approach to what Tesla is doing, for example. Tesla is focused on creating gigafactories, right? The huge buildings, huge warehouses to build cars in Germany or China or the U.S.

Marco Chacin:

This other approach seems to be more flexible, right? You just need a few trucks and just the space, you need to pay for other services. And so it has a lot of potential if they actually can do something like that. You combine that with the new capabilities of 3D printing, for example, and now we're talking serious disruption in the manufacturing world, right? So, I think that is really exciting. It has a lot of promise.

Stuart Black:

So, essentially create a mobile factory anywhere you like?

Marco Chacin:

You just need an empty lot and that's it, you're good to go.

Stuart Black:

So, I mean, if we can unplug factories from the need to have big warehouses facilities, then the sky's the limit after that.

Marco Chacin:

Indeed. I think that's a really interesting concept. It still needs to be proven, don't get me wrong. I mean, we have some ways to go but I think it has a lot of potential for disruption.

Stuart Black:

Okay. Watch this space. So, let's get down to Airbus and you're the principal robotics engineer there. What does that entail exactly?

Marco Chacin:

So, here in Airbus what I do is I'm basically a technical lead for some of the projects we do. So, I work for a central function, which means that although I'm based here in the UK, I participate and lead teams in other plants around the world, right? So I have projects in Germany, projects in France, in China, in the U.S. and what I do there is either I'm working on something that serves our legacy products, namely the aircraft that we already have in production. So, it's just to improve those production systems of those manufacturing systems, or I'm working on strategy for future products, right? In order to enable future automation to be able to assemble those products by themselves.

Marco Chacin:

One example I can give you of that is if you take the O aircraft or Legacy aircraft, the A320, for example, that aircraft was designed in the late '80s, more than 30 years ago with manual labor in mind, right? So designing any sort of automation system that will serve that is always very difficult because as you may imagine, robots are big and sometimes very bulky, their access is very difficult, is very challenging. However, in the future, what we want to do is we want to make sure that we design those systems, we design our aircraft, our wings, our fuselages in such a way that enables automation to actually be more efficient and allow the automation to actually come in and do the job and help our operators to actually do the job more effectively.

Marco Chacin:

I think that it's a key part of our future and the company has expressed so that way. So, basically I'm busy all day long guiding teams in order to be more efficient and more technically proficient and what I need to do and at the same time working on strategy, working on the next steps and working on what's coming in the future.

Stuart Black:

And what's it like to work at Airbus? What are the challenges for example?

Marco Chacin:

Well, the challenges of working on a company that's the size of a small city, right now we have 130,000 people working for this company. So, I think that one of the challenges that I see as any other big company is the politics of everything, right? Getting on the same page with people that may not, not only don't have the same technical background that you have, but also they don't have the same cultural background that you have either. So getting your point across, having somebody understand what you're saying, because sometimes it's not about you being right, it's about the way you convey your message. Struggling with those two things is always a topic. I'm lucky that I've been working with international teams for a long time.

Marco Chacin:

So, I have the facility of being able to speak to people and be friendly with them in most of the occasions and try to disrupt any sort of frictions. It helps that I speak all the languages. I don't speak French or German, but it helps that I can speak Spanish and English and obviously Japanese, but for what I do here in Europe, at least having two languages is very convenient for me in order to communicate.

Stuart Black:

But you're based in Wales now, in North Wales. So, what's it like moving there from having been in Japan, and Venezuela, and the U.S.?

Marco Chacin:

Well, I think the biggest difference was coming from Japan. So, we lived in Japan for 15 years and 11 of those 15 years, we lived in the Tokyo metropolitan area. So, that's an area that has 38 million people, and you get used to it, but it's not easy, don't get me wrong. And we moved here on purpose. We moved to Wales because we wanted space to breathe. We actually avoided moving to, so the biggest city we have close to us is Chester, which is a reasonably small city in here in the UK, but it still has a lot of people around you, right? So, we avoided moving there. Instead, we got a house here in Wales with nothing around us, a lot of space for us to expand and stretch our legs.

Marco Chacin:

It was night and day. My quality of life has changed. In Japan it's really common to commute for hours every day. At one point in Japan I was commuting two hours each way, every day. So, now my commute is eight minutes to the plant and in my own car. So, now I have four hours every day that I don't know what to do with them. So, it's great. I really like the change, my wife and my kids said that they also like it. Don't get me wrong, we all miss Japan. I know that my kids also do that, but in the end of the day, it's more about what the family needed and we made that decision together. And we enjoy being here.

Stuart Black:

I think you timed it perfectly as well because you've had obviously time in lockdown there. So, how's that been moving from a busy metropolitan city like Tokyo to suddenly being in the middle of Wales with nothing going on and nowhere to go?

Marco Chacin:

Well, in terms of space, funny you mentioned that because I told my wife that if we had to go through the lockdown and the shutting down of a country in a place like Japan, it's probably something far difficult than being here because as you may imagine, places to live like apartments and houses are all very small. So, not only you're confined to your house, but also you're confined to a very small space. Here, we have a house, everybody has their own room. You have that space for you to not feel like you're in jail, let's say. And in that regard, I think we made the right decision. I think we made the right choice. We were given a choice when Airbus contacted me and offered me the job, they asked me, where did I want to go?

Marco Chacin:

Between the four major countries here in Europe, Spain, France, Germany and the UK. And without hesitation we said UK, we're going to go to the UK because it felt something more closer to home in terms of the culture. To me, at least it's very close to the U.S. in terms of everybody speaks English, it's easier. I didn't need to learn another language, but also it was just easier for us. And I'm sure that my sons will get a lot of learning English more so than learning French or learning German in the long run. So, it was a strategic decision and let's say that it worked out really well for everybody.

Stuart Black:

Absolutely. And just moving from Tokyo to Wales, you must've seen a big difference in the manufacturing culture and the technology culture.

Marco Chacin:

Well, as you can imagine, the UK is not as automated as other countries. It's actually not even in the top five or 10 of the list today. I think the number of robots per capita here in the UK is much lower than many other countries around the world. So I was a little bit surprised to be honest at how far is the UK lagging on that regard, but I've also been glad to see that there's a lot of efforts in getting to that next level of, okay, we need to realize that we need to step up and get to the... I want to be part of that. And that's one of the reasons why I took the job when I came over here because in Japan, sure a lot of things are already automated. If you go to the factories there's a lot of automation in there.

Marco Chacin:

So it's not a green field, if you know what I mean. It's not a place where you're going to come in and have a free range of installing whatever you want. Here there's a lot of that. I mean, there's a lot of opportunity. I see that there's a lot of companies trying really hard to take that step. And so being part of Airbus has facilitated me to see this through our suppliers and establish those partnerships. It's been really great. Even though we still have a long way to go, I really enjoyed the experience so far.

Stuart Black:

So, what changes do you think the UK could make in terms of manufacturing and technology to try and boost us and get into the top five, the top three?

Marco Chacin:

So, I think that technology is here. I think the problem that we have, and I've always, and let me preface this by saying that this is just my own opinion coming from a country that is very different to this. I think that the regulations put in place here specifically for health and safety are way too strict. I'm not saying we need to relax things that could open up situations in which people will get hurt, but if I compare this to Japan, for example, there's a lot more restrictions and not a lot more regulation that has to do with not only what the government wants you to do, but also with what unions want you to do. So, you're basically dealing with people. In Japan that never happens, right?

Marco Chacin:

So, if I give you an example, well, first of all, Japan doesn't have unions. The unions in Japan are not that strong like they are here in other countries. If I give you a quick example. So, I've had chats with some of our suppliers and they tell us that it's really difficult for them to have their employees use a specific equipment. So, let's say exoskeletons, right? An exoskeleton is basically a mechanical robot basically, you can put on that will help you do something that you could normally not do. For example, lift a very heavy load, or perhaps when you have to work overhead, right? It will help you keep your arms up and things like that. Here in the UK, and not only the UK actually, this is a problem around Europe.

Marco Chacin:

People just don't want to use them for whatever reason, they just don't feel comfortable using it, right? They're given a choice on whether or not, well, if you don't want to use it, you don't use it. In a place like Japan, for example, that is not even a choice. The company is telling you need to use this otherwise, you're going to get hurt. And that's the end of it, right? So, the adoption of technologies like that, I don't know if it's cultural or not necessarily, but the adoption of technologies is much simpler in Asian countries that I've seen, because the same happens in Korea than in other places.

Marco Chacin:

I'm sure that it's not just a European thing, I'm sure that if you go to the U.S. it's probably the same. Strong unions, strong social partner components that you need to get through in order to implement any sort of thing that it will be beneficial for everybody, but I have the hope that we'll get there. It's just a matter of people realizing how useful these things can be. I think it's a misconception of what these systems can do for you.

Stuart Black:

Well, we'll have to see how things develop, but I can imagine people in warehouses with exoskeletons. It could be quite an interesting sight to see. Let's get back to your CV then. You've attended the Singularity university in Silicon valley. You met lots of interesting people along the way. Who's had a big impact in terms of robotics and engineering on you?

Marco Chacin:

So, when I worked for Singularity University back in 2010 and 2011 because I was part of the staff, I had a lot of access to a lot of personalities not only within Silicon valley, but also people that would come to NASA quite regularly. So, on that time I met, I could probably mention, first of all, Buzz Aldrin, who is one of the astronauts, one of the first men to step on another planet or on the moon in this case. It was interesting to meet him. It was actually the second time I've actually met him, although the first time we didn't interact as much this time it was interesting because he was able to help us, at the time we were working on a specific project for Singularity, it was to basically project humanity into space and I had an opportunity to ask him basically, point blank, "What would you do to promote more space education? What would you do to get people more excited about space?"

Marco Chacin:

One of my first jobs ever was I became a lecturer and a professor at the university back in Venezuela. It's something that I still do here. I'm also a visiting fellow in Cranfield University today. So, I like education. I like that aspect of engineering and talking to him and he's telling me, look, obviously engineering education, STEM education is really important, and having him tell me that we need to promote space through Hollywood. I thought it was a really funny thing to say, but he's right. I mean, it's trying to find a way to reach the most people that you can and what better way than inspiring people than movies and shows. Well, it worked for me, right?

Marco Chacin:

So, that's how I kind of make that connection because that's how I got into it as well. Making things that people can consume at their own time, at their own pace in different ways. It's obviously one of the things that we all thought, not only myself, we all thought it was really insightful for him to say. Another person that I really liked meeting when I was at the university was Jeff Greason. At the time he was the CEO of XCOR Corporation. One of the rocket companies that was in the run to get suborbital flights. Really smart guy. I remember that we had a dinner in which we had a discussion about basically everything rockets, right? And the way that he would think about things, the way he would break down problems and explain why things work and why it didn't work.

Marco Chacin:

I thought it was one of the most engaging things I've ever done with somebody who has that profile. I really enjoyed that sort of conversation in which you can. In order to explain things to people and it may be really difficult concepts, right? But you need to find a way to break down those concepts into something that people can consume and talk the same language, right? Obviously he was not talking down to me, like him I also have a PhD, but the way he explained himself. You don't need to use big words. You don't need to use buzzwords in order to be clever, to show yourself as somebody who understands those concepts. And that's something that I'm like that, I try to be like that and try to be relatable to the audience that is listening to you, right?

Marco Chacin:

So, I thought that had a big impact on me as somebody who likes education, who likes to basically educate people on what to do in the future and guide them in the future endeavors as well.

Stuart Black:

Oh, we're talking about the future then, if you were to look into your crystal ball in 10 years time, how do you see robotics being pervasive in our lives? What do you think the big change will be?

Marco Chacin:

In my view, what we're going to start seeing in the coming years is robots being more and more involved in services. So service robots is a relatively new field of robotics in which robots are going to be basically able to help you in your everyday tasks that you have to do. It will be more than just go get me a beer, which is the usual recurring joke on that, right? We started with the Roombas of the world, right? So, a robot that is vacuuming your house. We're going to start seeing more and more capable robots doing the same kind of thing like helping you with everyday tasks, not just washing your dishes and cleaning your house but also doing more important things like perhaps taking care of your kids in the future, or doing specific things maybe taking care of the garden or whatever that's going to be.

Marco Chacin:

I think we're going to start seeing more of that. So, this is probably in the commercial side but specifically we're going to start seeing that for the elderly. And this is something that Japan has been working on for many, many years now. So, Japan is a special case because that country is becoming very old in terms of population. And it's basically a problem that we will have in the future. Every single country in the world will go for this, it's just that Japan is the first out the door. There's something called demographic inversion. And it's the fact that, medicine has enabled people to live longer, now we're going to have to take care of everybody for longer time. And we don't have enough people to take care of those people in the future.

Marco Chacin:

So, that flip of the population in terms of age is going to be important and countries like Japan, for example, are preparing for that time, with those systems that are able to take care of the elderly. And so I think we're going to start seeing more and more of that companies and robots that are going to be doing little things here and there, as we prepare for the real robot that is going to take care of us when we are, I don't know, 70 or 80, I don't know.

Stuart Black:

That sounds very reassuring to know that we're going to be looked after when we get to that age. Finally then, can you explain to us a little bit about exponential technology and what impact that will have on our lives?

Marco Chacin:

Well, this is something that you get very much in touch with, through Singularity University at the time. So, exponential technology it's a piece of technology that is more or less doubling its capacity over a period of time, usually over two years. And it kind of follows the Moore's Law model. The case of Moore's Law is saying that the number of transistors within an IC chip is going to double every 18 or two years, 18 months, or two years I don't remember exactly the number, but basically it's cost performance. The cost performance of that technology is actually improving so much that it can now be used for everyday business, right? Or on the flip side, perhaps the cost only is being cut by half, right?

Marco Chacin:

So, you have things that we've been talking over the last hour, robotics, biotech, medicine, nanotech, 3D printing, all these things, they are now coming to a point in which everybody has a 3D printer now. Compared to 10 years ago that was not the case. So, what's really interesting is when those technologies cross each other, right? So you have like you were saying artificial intelligence or deep learning crossing with robotics, or using mathematical models or deep learning algorithms to sort out biomedical data or things like that. So, when you start seeing those crosses then we're going to start seeing big impacts on our everyday life. Products that are able to get through their big data, cloud processing and all those things that start affecting us. Actually, those things today have a big impact on what we do, we just don't see them, right?

Marco Chacin:

It's like the internet, right? The network, nobody complains about the network until it fails, right? So, people just don't realize how much these things are already into our lives, it's just that it's not evident to us. As time passes we're going to start seeing products are going to be directly to people and in order for us to get to that point. So companies like Teladoc, they are able to do patient assessments over the internet or with a specific agent remotely, things like that. This is the future. This is where we're going and all this capability is based on the rapid accelerating technology that is basically doubling its capacity over a specific amount of time. It changes from technology to technology, from field to field, but it's basically on the same curve.

Stuart Black:

So, let's end the show the same way we do every week by asking our guest to tell us one invention that if it was never manufactured, your life would be unbearable. So Marco, what invention could you not live without?

Marco Chacin:

Well, that's a tough one. I think that the popular choice here would be probably the internet, but I'm going to go even before that and I'm going to say the transistor. What I would like to say is the IC chip, but the transistor came first. I think that life would be very different if that had not been invented, obviously in my case, I would not be a roboticist without that. My first degree was electronics engineer. So it's kind of close to my heart, but I would say the transistor changed the world in the same way that the internet is changing the world still. So, I'm going to go with that.

Stuart Black:

It's fundamental. All it leaves me to do is to say thanks to today's guest, Marco Chacin.

Marco Chacin:

Well, thanks to you. Thanks for having me. I'm glad to be here.

Stuart Black:

Subscribe to this podcast in all the usual places, Apple podcast, Spotify, Amazon, and Google music. Thanks for listening to this edition of Remake Manufacturing. I'm your host, Stuart Black. See you next time.