3-D Printer Helps Save Dying Baby

From CNN

By Stephanie Smith, CNN
Wed May 22, 2013
Kaiba Gionfriddo as a newborn, before he experienced breathing problems.Kaiba Gionfriddo as a newborn, before he experienced breathing problems.
A second chance for Kaiba

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kaiba Gionfriddo stopped breathing daily and had to receive CPR
  • Doctors tried the equivalent of a “Hail Mary” pass
  • They created a splint on a 3-D printer to enable him to breathe

Editor’s note: “Life’s Work” features innovators and pioneers who are making a difference in the world of medicine.

(CNN) — When he was 6 weeks old, Kaiba Gionfriddo lay flat on a restaurant table, his skin turning blue. He had stopped breathing.

His father, Bryan, was furiously pumping his chest, trying to get air into his son’s lungs.

Within 30 minutes, Kaiba was admitted to a local hospital. Doctors concluded that he had probably breathed food or liquid into his lungs and eventually released him.

But two days later, it happened again. It was the beginning of an ordeal for the Youngstown, Ohio, family that continued day after agonizing day.

“They had to do CPR on him every day,” said April Gionfriddo, Kaiba’s mother, who later found out her son had a rare obstruction in his lungs called bronchial malacia. “I didn’t think he was going to leave the hospital alive.”

With hopes dimming that Kaiba would survive, doctors tried the medical equivalent of a “Hail Mary” pass. Using an experimental technique never before tried on a human, they created a splint made out of biological material that effectively carved a path through Kaiba’s blocked airway.

What makes this a medical feat straight out of science fiction: The splint was created on a three-dimensional printer.

“It’s magical to me,” said Dr. Glenn Green, an associate professor of pediatric otolaryngology at the University of Michigan who implanted the splint in Kaiba. “We’re talking about taking dust and using it to build body parts.”

Kaiba’s procedure was described in a letter published in the most recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

“It was pretty nifty that (doctors) were able to make something for Kaiba on a printer like that,” April Gionfriddo said. “But we really weren’t so worried about that. We were more worried about our son.”

Green, who has been practicing for two decades, and a UM colleague, biomedical engineer Scott Hollister, had been working for years toward a clinical trial to test the splint in children with pulmonary issues when they got a phone call from a physician in Ohio who was aware of their research.

“He said, ‘I’ve got a child who needs (a splint) now,’ ” referring to Kaiba, said Green. “He said that this child is not going to live unless something is done.”

Green and Hollister got emergency clearance from their hospital and the Food and Drug Administration to try the experimental treatment — which had been used only on animals — on Kaiba. The child was airlifted from Akron Children’s Hospital to C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at UM.

“It was a mixture of elation and, for lack of a better word, terror,” said Hollister, a professor of biomedical and mechanical engineering who has been studying tissue regeneration for more than 15 years. “When someone drops something like this in your lap and says, ‘Look, this might be this kid’s only chance’ … it’s a big step.”

The next big step was getting a CT scan of Kaiba’s lungs so that the splint could be fitted to his organs’ exact dimensions. Hollister used the results of the scan to generate a computer model of the splint.

The model was fed into a 3-D printer that can engineer structures using a powder called polycaprolactone, or PCL.

PCL is malleable; it can be fashioned into all kinds of intricate structures. When a splint is created using PCL, it becomes a sort of biological placeholder, propping up structures while the body heals around it.

PCL has been used for years to fill holes left behind in the skull after brain surgery, according to Hollister. As time passes, PCL degrades and is excreted out of the body, hopefully leaving behind a healed organ.

What followed in Kaiba’s case was a painstaking process of creating the splint on the printer in layers. Information about each layer is transmitted from the computer to a laser beam, which melts the PCL into a 3-D structure.

“We can put together a complete copy of a body part on the 3-D printer within a day,” Green said. “So we can make something very specific for a patient very quickly.”

Green then took the splint, measuring just a few centimeters long and 8 millimeters wide, and surgically attached it to Kaiba’s collapsed bronchus. It was only moments before he saw the results.

“When the stitches were put in, we started seeing the lung inflate and deflate,” Green said. “It was so fabulous. There were people in the operating room cheering.”

“This case is a wonderful example that regenerative technologies are no longer science fiction,” said Dr. Andre Terzic, director of the Mayo Clinic Center for Regenerative Medicine, who was not involved in Kaiba’s case. “We are increasingly … finding new solutions that we didn’t have before.”

The technique used by Green and Hollister is part of a burgeoning field called regenerative medicine, which involves engineering therapies — using things like stem cells, or “body parts” constructed out of biological material — to harness the body’s ability to heal itself.

Creating a part that is specific to a patient’s organ takes on even more importance with diseases like bronchial malacia, in which conventional intervention is risky and often the alternative is life on a ventilator.

But while cases like Kaiba’s are a medical boon, both Terzic and the UM researchers stress that this and other regenerative procedures must be replicated in a wider patient population.

“This gives us the opportunity to really do patient-specific and individualized medicine,” Hollister said. “So we don’t have to do one-size-fits-all. But there is still a lot of work to be done.”

While that work is being done, Kaiba’s family remains grateful that, 15 months post-surgery and at age 18 months, he is still able to breathe on his own.

“I’m just so happy he’s still here, that he was able to make it through,” April Gionfriddo said. “Hopefully (soon) he’ll be able to run around and be an even happier child.”

The splint will take three years to degrade, and in the meantime, Kaiba’s lung should continue to develop normally, said Green.

Green and Hollister hope to begin clinical trials in a larger patient population this year or next.

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3-D Printing Initiative in U.S. School Attracts International Visitors

Here’s an article on how middle school students in Virginia are using 3D printers.  Sacred Heart Greenwich students have designed and Printed many items via online CAD programs and our 3D printer.  Our faculty has also learned a great deal about the technology and we look forward to including more design and engineering work, via the 3D printer as we increase our Science Technology, Engineering and Math, STEM, offerings next year.

Stephanie Thrift, 14, attaches a wire coil onto the base of a stereo speaker that she and fellow students made using 3-D printing technologies at Buford Middle School in Charlottesville, Va. An initiative there teaches advanced manufacturing skills.
—Norm Shafer for Education Week

Initiative emphasizes science, engineering

By Bryan McKenzie, The Daily Progress (MCT)
Charlottesville, Va.

With a Japanese television news crew keeping close watch on a recent school day, Buford Middle School science students crafted their own sound speakers from plastic and paper. They did it using three-dimensional printers and computer-design software to produce plastic supports, paper cones, and other pieces.

“I think it’s interesting that they’re including 3-D computerization and printing into the education program at this level and what it means for the future of job training in the U.S.,” said Takashi Yanagisawa, a correspondent with Japan’s Nippon Television. “This is what President Obama talked of in his State of the Union address, about bringing technology into schools for job training.”

Mr. Yanagisawa and his colleagues are producing a segment for Japanese TV that will feature the class at the Virginia school as an example of efforts in the United States to bring more technology into schools.

“We’re in on the ground floor of bringing manufacturing and technology into the classrooms,” said James M. Henderson, the assistant superintendent for administration services for the 3,900-student Charlottesville city school system. “We’re participating with Piedmont Virginia Community College and the University of Virginia, and we hope to make this a 7th-through-12th-grade program. This is the start.”

The start is the result of a $300,000 state grant to create a “laboratory school for advanced manufacturing technologies.”

Carter Gillaspie, 14, examines a paper cone to be used in a stereo speaker that his group designed and built using 3-D printing technologies at Buford Middle School in Charlottesville, Va.
—Norm Shafer for Education Week

The school is a collaboration between the University of Virginia and its home city to teach science and engineering in public schools and prepare students for high-tech jobs. It also provides future teachers experience combining engineering concepts and traditional science education.

University officials hope the concept is eventually picked up by schools across the country.

Costs Drop

Eventually, advanced manufacturing-technology programs will be added at Jack Jouett Middle School in neighboring Albemarle County and in Charlottesville and Albemarle County high schools. The sites each will be linked to one another and the University of Virginia via videoconferencing.

Next school year, the lab school plans to offer courses to 500 or so 8th graders at the two middle schools. Each school year, a new grade level is scheduled to be added. High school students eventually would get the chance to study advanced manufacturing through double-enrollment with Piedmont Virginia Community College.

The price of 3-D printers has dropped sharply over the past two years, with machines that once cost $20,000 now at $1,000 or cheaper, educators said. Although they don’t expect printers to replace current factories, the engineering and technology behind the software and the devices will change how goods are made in the near future.

School officials say the classes will give students a boost in technological and manufacturing training and, therefore, a leg up in the job market upon graduation.

“We are committed to educating our young people and making sure their education is not just enough to pass tests but equip them with skills that will help them after graduation in the job market and help them contribute to the economy,” said Rosa S. Atkins, the Charlottesville superintendent.

Students also get hands-on science and mathematic instruction. Rather than learning math and science as abstract concepts, students can learn about them in action.

“Having a 3-D printer doesn’t do you much good if you don’t have the knowledge and ability to design the programs or the product and make it work for you,” said Glen Bull, a professor of instructional technology and co-director of the Center for Technology and Teacher Education at the University of Virginia.

Student-Created Products

At one table on a recent school day, 8th graders Ben Sties, Ben Ralston, and Nick Givens used University of Virginia-created software to design and print in plastic the support structure for a paper cone “woofer,” a speaker that enhances the bass sound in a stereo system.

“We did this first semester, and the first time we did it, we didn’t have all of the equipment,” Mr. Sties said. “We got to do some of it and we understood it, but it didn’t work nearly as well.”

The first-semester speaker didn’t woof, they said. Neither did it tweet. It simply vibrated.

“Making it with the 3-D printer makes a big difference. Now we can make a speaker that really makes sound,” said Mr. Givens.

The 3-D-printing equipment, software, and program guidelines come from the minds of University of Virginia professors in the school of education and the school of engineering and applied science. The goal, Mr. Bull said, is to develop coursework that can be replicated in schools nationwide.

“You have a group of professors and students in the rapid-prototyping lab [at the university] who are working on the curriculum and methodology with the idea of finding out how it can be taught and work well in most classroom environments,” Mr. Bull said.

And the concept might scale up beyond the United States.

“It’s something we probably should consider in our country as well,” said Mr. Yanagisawa, the Japanese correspondent.

Copyright (c) 2013, The Daily Progress, Virginia. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

If You’ve Got the Skills, She’s Got the Job

The New York Times, OP-ED COLUMNIST

If You’ve Got the Skills, She’s Got the Job

By 
Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

TRACI TAPANI is not your usual C.E.O. For the last 19 years, she and her sister have been co-presidents of Wyoming Machine, a sheet metal company they inherited from their father in Stacy, Minn. I met Tapani at a meeting convened by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development to discuss one of its biggest challenges today: finding the skilled workers that employers need to run local businesses. I’ll let Tapani take it from here:

“About 2009,” she explained, “when the economy was collapsing and there was a lot of unemployment, we were working with a company that got a contract to armor Humvees,” so her 55-person company “had to hire a lot of people. I was in the market looking for 10 welders. I had lots and lots of applicants, but they did not have enough skill to meet the standard for armoring Humvees. Many years ago, people learned to weld in a high school shop class or in a family business or farm, and they came up through the ranks and capped out at a certain skill level. They did not know the science behind welding,” so could not meet the new standards of the U.S. military and aerospace industry.

“They could make beautiful welds,” she said, “but they did not understand metallurgy, modern cleaning and brushing techniques” and how different metals and gases, pressures and temperatures had to be combined. Moreover, in small manufacturing businesses like hers, explained Tapani, “unlike a Chinese firm that does high-volume, low-tech jobs, we do a lot of low-volume, high-tech jobs, and each one has its own design drawings. So a welder has to be able to read and understand five different design drawings in a single day.”

Tapani eventually found a welder from another firm who had passed the American Welding Society Certified Welding Inspector exam, the industry’s gold standard, and he trained her welders — some of whom took several tries to pass the exam — so she could finish the job. Since then, Tapani trained a woman from Stacy, who had originally learned welding to make ends meet as a single mom. She took on the challenge of becoming a certified welding inspector, passed the exam and Tapani made her the company’s own in-house instructor, no longer relying on the local schools.

“She knows how to read a weld code. She can write work instructions and make sure that the people on the floor can weld to that instruction,” so “we solved the problem by training our own people,” said Tapani, adding that while schools are trying hard, training your own workers is often the only way for many employers to adapt to “the quick response time” demanded for “changing skills.” But even getting the right raw recruits is not easy. Welding “is a $20-an-hour job with health care, paid vacations and full benefits,” said Tapani, but “you have to have science and math. I can’t think of any job in my sheet metal fabrication company where math is not important. If you work in a manufacturing facility, you use math every day; you need to compute angles and understand what happens to a piece of metal when it’s bent to a certain angle.”

Who knew? Welding is now a STEM job — that is, a job that requires knowledge of science, technology, engineering and math.

Employers across America will tell you similar stories. It’s one reason we have three million open jobs around the country but 8 percent unemployment. We’re in the midst of a perfect storm: a Great Recession that has caused a sharp increase in unemployment and a Great Inflection — a merger of the information technology revolution and globalization that is simultaneously wiping out many decent-wage, middle-skilled jobs, which were the foundation of our middle class, and replacing them with decent-wage, high-skilled jobs. Every decent-paying job today takes more skill and more education, but too many Americans aren’t ready. This problem awaits us after the “fiscal cliff.”

“We need to be honest; there is a big case for Keynesian-style stimulus today, but that is not going to solve all our problems,” said the Harvard University labor economist Lawrence Katz. “The main reason the unemployment rate is higher today than it was in 2007, before the Great Recession, is because we have an ongoing cyclical unemployment problem — a lack of aggregate demand for labor — initiated by the financial crisis and persisting with continued housing market problems, consumers still deleveraging, the early cessation of fiscal stimulus compounded by cutbacks by state and local governments.” This is the main reason we went from around 5 percent to 8 percent unemployment.

But what is also true, says Katz, was that even before the Great Recession we had a mounting skills problem as a result of 25 years of U.S. education failing to keep up with rising skills demands, and it’s getting worse. There was almost a doubling of the college wage premium from 1980 to 2007 — that is, the extra income you earn from getting a two- or four-year degree. This was because there was a surge in demand for higher skills, as globalization and the I.T. revolution intensified, combined with a slowdown in the growth of supply of higher skills.

Many community colleges and universities simply can’t keep pace and teach to the new skill requirements, especially with their budgets being cut. We need a new “Race to the Top” that will hugely incentivize businesses to embed workers in universities to teach — and universities to embed professors inside businesses to learn — so we get a much better match between schooling and the job markets.

“The world no longer cares about what you know; the world only cares about what you can do with what you know,” explains Tony Wagner of Harvard, the author of “Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World.”

Eduardo Padrón, the president of Miami Dade College, the acclaimed pioneer in education-for-work, put it this way: “The skill shortage is real. Years ago, we started working with over 100 companies to meet their needs. Every program that we offer has an industry advisory committee that helps us with curriculum, mentorship, internships and scholarships. … Spanish-speaking immigrants used to be able to come here and get a decent job doing repetitive tasks in an office or factory and earn enough to buy a home and car and put their kids through school and enjoy middle-class status. That is no longer possible. … The big issue in America is not the fiscal deficit, but the deficit in understanding about education and the role it plays in the knowledge economy.”

The time when education — particularly the right kind of education — “could be a luxury for the few is long gone,” Padrón added.

The Need for Robotics and Programming in Education

Here’s an interesting article on how robots are replacing humans in many factories around the world.  The article serves as an important reminder for the importance of our girls to learn programing and robotics.  Stay tuned to the Au Courant for information on our after school robotics team and our new seventh grade robotics unit.

The New York Times

August 18, 2012

 

Skilled Work, Without the Worker

By

DRACHTEN, the Netherlands — At the Philips Electronics factory on the coast of China, hundreds of workers use their hands and specialized tools to assemble electric shavers. That is the old way.

At a sister factory here in the Dutch countryside, 128 robot arms do the same work with yoga-like flexibility. Video cameras guide them through feats well beyond the capability of the most dexterous human.

One robot arm endlessly forms three perfect bends in two connector wires and slips them into holes almost too small for the eye to see. The arms work so fast that they must be enclosed in glass cages to prevent the people supervising them from being injured. And they do it all without a coffee break — three shifts a day, 365 days a year.

All told, the factory here has several dozen workers per shift, about a tenth as many as the plant in the Chinese city of Zhuhai.

This is the future. A new wave of robots, far more adept than those now commonly used by automakers and other heavy manufacturers, are replacing workers around the world in both manufacturing and distribution. Factories like the one here in the Netherlands are a striking counterpoint to those used by Apple and other consumer electronics giants, which employ hundreds of thousands of low-skilled workers.

“With these machines, we can make any consumer device in the world,” said Binne Visser, an electrical engineer who manages the Philips assembly line in Drachten.

Many industry executives and technology experts say Philips’s approach is gaining ground on Apple’s. Even as Foxconn, Apple’s iPhone manufacturer, continues to build new plants and hire thousands of additional workers to make smartphones, it plans to install more than a million robots within a few years to supplement its work force in China.

Foxconn has not disclosed how many workers will be displaced or when. But its chairman, Terry Gou, has publicly endorsed a growing use of robots. Speaking of his more than one million employees worldwide, he said in January, according to the official Xinhua news agency: “As human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache.”

The falling costs and growing sophistication of robots have touched off a renewed debate among economists and technologists over how quickly jobs will be lost. This year, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, made the case for a rapid transformation. “The pace and scale of this encroachment into human skills is relatively recent and has profound economic implications,” they wrote in their book, “Race Against the Machine.”

In their minds, the advent of low-cost automation foretells changes on the scale of the revolution in agricultural technology over the last century, when farming employment in the United States fell from 40 percent of the work force to about 2 percent today. The analogy is not only to the industrialization of agriculture but also to the electrification of manufacturing in the past century, Mr. McAfee argues.

“At what point does the chain saw replace Paul Bunyan?” asked Mike Dennison, an executive at Flextronics, a manufacturer of consumer electronics products that is based in Silicon Valley and is increasingly automating assembly work. “There’s always a price point, and we’re very close to that point.”

But Bran Ferren, a veteran roboticist and industrial product designer at Applied Minds in Glendale, Calif., argues that there are still steep obstacles that have made the dream of the universal assembly robot elusive. “I had an early naïveté about universal robots that could just do anything,” he said. “You have to have people around anyway. And people are pretty good at figuring out, how do I wiggle the radiator in or slip the hose on? And these things are still hard for robots to do.”

Beyond the technical challenges lies resistance from unionized workers and communities worried about jobs. The ascension of robots may mean fewer jobs are created in this country, even though rising labor and transportation costs in Asia and fears of intellectual property theft are now bringing some work back to the West.

Take the cavernous solar-panel factory run by Flextronics in Milpitas, south of San Francisco. A large banner proudly proclaims “Bringing Jobs & Manufacturing Back to California!” (Right now China makes a large share of the solar panels used in this country and is automating its own industry.)

Yet in the state-of-the-art plant, where the assembly line runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, there are robots everywhere and few human workers. All of the heavy lifting and almost all of the precise work is done by robots that string together solar cells and seal them under glass. The human workers do things like trimming excess material, threading wires and screwing a handful of fasteners into a simple frame for each panel.

Such advances in manufacturing are also beginning to transform other sectors that employ millions of workers around the world. One is distribution, where robots that zoom at the speed of the world’s fastest sprinters can store, retrieve and pack goods for shipment far more efficiently than people. Robots could soon replace workers at companies like C & S Wholesale Grocers, the nation’s largest grocery distributor, which has already deployed robot technology.

Rapid improvement in vision and touch technologies is putting a wide array of manual jobs within the abilities of robots. For example, Boeing’s wide-body commercial jets are now riveted automatically by giant machines that move rapidly and precisely over the skin of the planes. Even with these machines, the company said it struggles to find enough workers to make its new 787 aircraft. Rather, the machines offer significant increases in precision and are safer for workers.

And at Earthbound Farms in California, four newly installed robot arms with customized suction cups swiftly place clamshell containers of organic lettuce into shipping boxes. The robots move far faster than the people they replaced. Each robot replaces two to five workers at Earthbound, according to John Dulchinos, an engineer who is the chief executive at Adept Technology, a robot maker based in Pleasanton, Calif., that developed Earthbound’s system.

Robot manufacturers in the United States say that in many applications, robots are already more cost-effective than humans.

At an automation trade show last year in Chicago, Ron Potter, the director of robotics technology at an Atlanta consulting firm called Factory Automation Systems, offered attendees a spreadsheet to calculate how quickly robots would pay for themselves.

In one example, a robotic manufacturing system initially cost $250,000 and replaced two machine operators, each earning $50,000 a year. Over the 15-year life of the system, the machines yielded $3.5 million in labor and productivity savings.

The Obama administration says this technological shift presents a historic opportunity for the nation to stay competitive. “The only way we are going to maintain manufacturing in the U.S. is if we have higher productivity,” said Tom Kalil, deputy director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Government officials and industry executives argue that even if factories are automated, they still are a valuable source of jobs. If the United States does not compete for advanced manufacturing in industries like consumer electronics, it could lose product engineering and design as well. Moreover, robotics executives argue that even though blue-collar jobs will be lost, more efficient manufacturing will create skilled jobs in designing, operating and servicing the assembly lines, as well as significant numbers of other kinds of jobs in the communities where factories are.

And robot makers point out that their industry itself creates jobs. A report commissioned by the International Federation of Robotics last year found that 150,000 people are already employed by robotics manufacturers worldwide in engineering and assembly jobs.

But American and European dominance in the next generation of manufacturing is far from certain.

“What I see is that the Chinese are going to apply robots too,” said Frans van Houten, Philips’s chief executive. “The window of opportunity to bring manufacturing back is before that happens.”

A Faster Assembly Line

Royal Philips Electronics began making the first electric shavers in 1939 and set up the factory here in Drachten in 1950. But Mr. Visser, the engineer who manages the assembly, takes pride in the sophistication of the latest shavers. They sell for as much as $350 and, he says, are more complex to make than smartphones.

The assembly line here is made up of dozens of glass cages housing robots made by Adept Technology that snake around the factory floor for more than 100 yards. Video cameras atop the cages guide the robot arms almost unerringly to pick up the parts they assemble. The arms bend wires with millimetric accuracy, set toothpick-thin spindles in tiny holes, grab miniature plastic gears and set them in housings, and snap pieces of plastic into place.

The next generation of robots for manufacturing will be more flexible and easier to train.

Witness the factory of Tesla Motors, which recently began manufacturing the Tesla S, a luxury sedan, in Fremont, Calif., on the edge of Silicon Valley.

More than half of the building is shuttered, called “the dark side.” It still houses a dingy, unused Toyota Corolla assembly line on which an army of workers once turned out half a million cars annually.

The Tesla assembly line is a stark contrast, brilliantly lighted. Its fast-moving robots, bright Tesla red, each has a single arm with multiple joints. Most of them are imposing, 8 to 10 feet tall, giving them a slightly menacing “Terminator” quality.

But the arms seem eerily human when they reach over to a stand and change their “hand” to perform a different task. While the many robots in auto factories typically perform only one function, in the new Tesla factory a robot might do up to four: welding, riveting, bonding and installing a component.

As many as eight robots perform a ballet around each vehicle as it stops at each station along the line for just five minutes. Ultimately as many as 83 cars a day — roughly 20,000 are planned for the first year — will be produced at the factory. When the company adds a sport utility vehicle next year, it will be built on the same assembly line, once the robots are reprogrammed.

Tesla’s factory is tiny but represents a significant bet on flexible robots, one that could be a model for the industry. And others are already thinking bigger.

Hyundai and Beijing Motors recently completed a mammoth factory outside Beijing that can produce a million vehicles a year using more robots and fewer people than the big factories of their competitors and with the same flexibility as Tesla’s, said Paul Chau, an American venture capitalist at WI Harper who toured the plant in June.

The New Warehouse

Traditional and futuristic systems working side by side in a distribution center north of New York City show how robotics is transforming the way products are distributed, threatening jobs. From this warehouse in Newburgh, C & S, the nation’s largest grocery wholesaler, supplies a major supermarket chain.

The old system sprawls across almost half a million square feet. The shelves are loaded and unloaded around the clock by hundreds of people driving pallet jacks and forklifts. At peak times in the evening, the warehouse is a cacophony of beeping and darting electric vehicles as workers with headsets are directed to cases of food by a computer that speaks to them in four languages.

The new system is much smaller, squeezed into only 30,000 square feet at the far end of the warehouse and controlled by just a handful of technicians. They watch over a four-story cage with different levels holding 168 “rover” robots the size of go-carts. Each can move at 25 miles an hour, nearly as fast as an Olympic sprinter.

Each rover is connected wirelessly to a central computer and on command will race along an aisle until it reaches its destination — a case of food to retrieve or the spot to drop one off for storage. The robot gathers a box by extending two-foot-long metal fingers from its side and sliding them underneath. It lifts the box and pulls it to its belly. Then it accelerates to the front of the steel cage, where it turns into a wide lane where it must contend with traffic — eight robots are active on each level of the structure, which is 20 aisles wide and 21 levels high.

From the aisle, the robots wait their turn to pull into a special open lane where they deposit each load into an elevator that sends a stream of food cases down to a conveyor belt that leads to a large robot arm.

About 10 feet tall, the arm has the grace and dexterity of a skilled supermarket bagger, twisting and turning each case so the final stack forms an eight-foot cube. The software is sophisticated enough to determine which robot should pick up which case first, so when the order arrives at the supermarket, workers can take the cases out in the precise order in which they are to go on the shelves.

When the arm is finished, the cube of goods is conveyed to a machine that wraps it in clear plastic to hold it in place. Then a forklift operator summoned by the computer moves the cube to a truck for shipment.

Built by Symbotic, a start-up company based in the Boston area, this robotic warehouse is inspired by computer designers who created software algorithms to efficiently organize data to be stored on a computer’s hard drive.

Jim Baum, Symbotic’s chief executive, compares the new system to a huge parallel computer. The design is efficient because there is no single choke point; the cases of food moving through the robotic warehouse are like the digital bits being processed by the computer.

Humans’ Changing Role

In the decade since he began working as a warehouseman in Tolleson, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix, Josh Graves has seen how automation systems can make work easier but also create new stress and insecurity. The giant facility where he works distributes dry goods for Kroger supermarkets.

Mr. Graves, 29, went to work in the warehouse, where his father worked for three decades, right out of high school. The demanding job required lifting heavy boxes and the hours were long. “They would bring in 15 guys, and only one would last,” he said.

Today Mr. Graves drives a small forklift-like machine that stores and retrieves cases of all sizes. Because such workers are doing less physical labor, there are fewer injuries, said Rome Aloise, a Teamsters vice president in Northern California. Because a computer sets the pace, the stress is now more psychological.

Mr. Graves wears headsets and is instructed by a computerized voice on where to go in the warehouse to gather or store products. A centralized computer the workers call The Brain dictates their speed. Managers know exactly what the workers do, to the precise minute.

Several years ago, Mr. Graves’s warehouse installed a German system that automatically stores and retrieves cases of food. That led to the elimination of 106 jobs, roughly 20 percent of the work force. The new system was initially maintained by union workers with high seniority. Then that job went to the German company, which hired nonunion workers.

Now Kroger plans to build a highly automated warehouse in Tolleson. Sixty union workers went before the City Council last year to oppose the plan, on which the city has not yet ruled.

“We don’t have a problem with the machines coming,” Mr. Graves told city officials. “But tell Kroger we don’t want to lose these jobs in our city.”

Some jobs are still beyond the reach of automation: construction jobs that require workers to move in unpredictable settings and perform different tasks that are not repetitive; assembly work that requires tactile feedback like placing fiberglass panels inside airplanes, boats or cars; and assembly jobs where only a limited quantity of products are made or where there are many versions of each product, requiring expensive reprogramming of robots.

But that list is growing shorter.

Upgrading Distribution

Inside a spartan garage in an industrial neighborhood in Palo Alto, Calif., a robot armed with electronic “eyes” and a small scoop and suction cups repeatedly picks up boxes and drops them onto a conveyor belt.

It is doing what low-wage workers do every day around the world.

Older robots cannot do such work because computer vision systems were costly and limited to carefully controlled environments where the lighting was just right. But thanks to an inexpensive stereo camera and software that lets the system see shapes with the same ease as humans, this robot can quickly discern the irregular dimensions of randomly placed objects.

The robot uses a technology pioneered in Microsoft’s Kinect motion sensing system for its Xbox video game system.

Such robots will put automation within range of companies like Federal Express and United Parcel Service that now employ tens of thousands of workers doing such tasks.

The start-up behind the robot, Industrial Perception Inc., is the first spinoff of Willow Garage, an ambitious robotics research firm based in Menlo Park, Calif. The first customer is likely to be a company that now employs thousands of workers to load and unload its trucks. The workers can move one box every six seconds on average. But each box can weigh more than 130 pounds, so the workers tire easily and sometimes hurt their backs.

Industrial Perception will win its contract if its machine can reliably move one box every four seconds. The engineers are confident that the robot will soon do much better than that, picking up and setting down one box per second.

“We’re on the cusp of completely changing manufacturing and distribution,” said Gary Bradski, a machine-vision scientist who is a founder of Industrial Perception. “I think it’s not as singular an event, but it will ultimately have as big an impact as the Internet.”