NEWTON, NJ- Students at Newton High School had a unique opportunity on Monday. They got to see a robot create a shoe right in the parking lot of the school. The Keen Brand Shoes Manufacturing Trailer set up shop next to the tennis courts on a beautiful fall day.
Technology teacher and Robotics coach Jim Hofmann started following the Keen company when he saw they manufactured in the United States. He reached out when he saw they were planning an East Coast tour.
“Jim’s was the first request,” Scott Owen, Innovation Manager said. They closed the application window shortly after that, having gotten such a large response. “We’re super happy to be here.”
Not limited to robotics students, a steady stream of classes visited the mobile lab all day including marketing, photography and graphics students. Each group of students had a different perspective on what they were watching.
Some questions centered around the coding it took to run the robot, others asked about the ascetics of the shoes, still others wanted to know more about the history of the company and the products and the name of the robot.
It is called Oscar, The Uneekbot. Oscar, actually comprised of two robotic arms, is named for the 17-year-old who wrote the code to have the robots create the shoes. He worked for House of Design in Nampa, Idaho, the only company that would take on the project.
It took human Oscar 18 months to create the code that weaves shoes.
The shoe, comprised of a rubber sole with woven paracord for the body, is created in four minutes on the robot. The shoes are finished by hand.
“A customer can go into the [Portland, Oregon] store, choose their color and size, go next door to a famous coffee house [Starbucks] and by the time they’ve finished their coffee the shoe is ready,” Owen said.
Owen is traveling with Robotics Engineer Ben Kolligs and Marketing Coordinator and Shoe Maker Nani Tomas. Owen and Tomas had to learn to make the shoe by hand.
When a student remarked “robots are taking over the world,” Owen countered they “are actually creating more jobs.” Owen explained it took three hours to make the shoe by hand. By having the robot do the repetitive work of weaving the paracord, it made it possible to mass produce the shoe.
Because the finish work requires many manipulations of the shoe it would not be efficient to have robot do that work, according to Toma.
Newton High School was the first stop on the Keen crew's East Coast five week tour. They will be visiting Scotch Plains high school, Fashion Institute of Technology, Georgetown, Boston University and others.
“We are trying to get kids interested in robotics,” Owen said. “We're looking to get the next generation of innovators excited.”
“The students are learning about how to become an influencer, how to tell a story,” Hofmann said.
In addition to the trailer, the Keen crew hosts “60 start up nights” that gets students to learn about "how you build a marketing deal, how to pitch an idea to get investors." There are also Pitch Nights where students present their products.
“They don’t’ have to be related to shoes,” Owen said.
Most recently they were pitched a back pack idea. The back pack creator was brought to Portland for a crash course on how to get an idea from conception, to production and to distribution.
“We took it to a music festival in Tokyo, Fugi Rock, to get feedback,” Owen said. It was also a good reason for Owen to get to Japan to visit his family.
There are two Keen Trailers, the one that visited Newton and one in Tokyo.
“We’ve been fortunate to have teachers reach out,” Owen said. “I had a teacher tell me this was the most engaged he had seen his students.”
In response to students’ questions, Owen told them “graphic designers work to take all of the crazy (pointing to his head) and make it pretty. Take a crazy idea and make it simple.”
“You don’t want your logo in New Times Roman,” Kolligs said to the graphics students.
Tomas told the students the rubber flange trimmed off the edge of the sole after the robot is finished, is sent to a company in India that uses the discarded rubber to make shoes for children that do not have shoes.
They also save excess paracord for the Girls Scouts in Oregon, according to Tomas. “We try to be as responsible as possible.” They are looking for ways to make the trailer run on solar. Currently they employ a generator, also the subject of question from the robotics students.
The questions were wide ranging. One robotics student asked why they chose to use an "ABB robot versus KUKA or FANUC. Another asked why they used a Yamaha generator not a Honda (“Yamaha is the quietest,” Kolligs said.)
“How durable is the robot?” a students asked. “They can last for more than 20 years with regular maintenance,” Kolligs said. Oscar, The Uneekbot had to be able to withstand the bumps of the road. He even has seat belts to hold the arms in place.
They wanted to know how much the robot cost — “$350,000,000.”
How much PSI is needed to work the robot — 80 PSI
For the record it takes 240 volts and 30 amps to run the robot arms.
“The definition of robot is a machine that is supposed to do a certain task,” Kolligs said. “Technically Oscar is two robots, a robot system.”
Keen is holding a contest to guess how many lines of code it takes to have Oscar create a shoe, Kolligs told the students.
Before returning to their classrooms the students stopped to play with the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robots set up on the display table for some unplugged competition.
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