Mexico set to become world leader in automation tech
The pianist’s phrasing is stilted, his movements mechanical and precise, though lacking in the unique human touch that defines a truly great performer. However, we can forgive Don Cuco his lack of grace, for this pianist is not human. Nicknamed “El Guapo” (Good-lookin’), he is the first-ever robot to have been built in Mexico.
Don Cuco began life as a robot with the ability to read sheet music and play the piano in 1992. Since then, the country has made great strides in the fields of mechatronics, robotics, automation, and other areas of high-tech engineering.
“We’ve been making robots and satellites ever since,” said Dr. Héctor Vargas, who worked on the team that designed Don Cuco as part of his undergraduate thesis. “The field of robotics has grown significantly [in Mexico] since then.”
Vargas is now lead research professor at the Popular Autonomous University of the State of Puebla (UPAEP), which was recruited by NASA to build a small cube satellite that allows the space agency to maintain round-the-clock communication with its Globalstar satellite network. No bigger than a box of Chinese takeout, the tiny satellite dubbed AzTechSat-1 was launched on a SpaceX rocket in December 2019 and deployed from the International Space Station in February 2020. It now orbits below the Globalstar satellites, taking the place of several ground-based antenna stations.
“It seems simple, but it’s something that hadn’t been done before,” said project director Eugenio Urrutia. Researchers at UPAEP had been working on measuring and observation instruments to fly over the nearby Popocatépetl volcano when NASA asked them to build the agency a cube satellite.
“NASA recognized the potential in Mexico and at UPAEP to create the satellite the agency wanted,” said Urrutia. His team lived up to NASA’s expectations, and did so with mostly undergraduate researchers — just four of the more than 55 UPAEP students who worked on the AzTechSat-1 were postgraduates.
The tiny cube satellite is still in orbit and functioning properly today.
While most of the world outside Mexico has largely focused on the sensational topics of drug violence and “migrant caravans” in recent decades, NASA and the private sector have kept a keen eye on what Mexican engineers have been achieving in labs across the country.
“The success of the AztechSat-1 mission has generated the interest of many more Mexican universities to add aerospace to their [engineering programs], increased the interest [of] new students to study STEM careers, and motivated the venture capitalists to invest in new space companies,” said Andrés Martínez, program executive of NASA’s advanced explorations systems division of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.
Mexico stands poised to become a world leader in what has been called the Fourth Industrial Revolution, aka Industry 4.0 — a sentiment shared at Industrial Transformation Mexico (ITM) 2021, put on by the renowned German industrial trade fair Hannover Messe in León, Guanajuato, in October. Mexico was a big hit as the guest country at the 2018 Hannover Messe fair in Germany, leading the company to bring the event to Guanajuato.
“Our executives were totally blown away by the level of technological development in Mexico,” said ITM general director Azul Ogazón. Hannover Messe was so impressed with Mexico and specifically the Bajío region — comprised of parts of the states of Guanajuato, Jalisco, Zacatecas, Michoacán, Aguascalientes, San Luis Potosí, and Querétaro — that it recently opened up permanent offices in León.
“The Bajío is the beating heart of industry in the country and where the most Industry 4.0 tech is being used,” said Ogazón. The technology on display at ITM has applications in everything from automaking to aerospace, agriculture, and other industries. And the exhibiting companies, many of which boast broad international recognition, have their eye on Mexican engineers.
Mitsubishi Electric is one such company. Only nominally affiliated with the carmaker of the same name, it brought a pair of cutting-edge robotic sorting arms to the fair.
“Mexico is a very important source of talent for us, not only for filling positions at Mitsubishi Electric, but also to equip the automation technology industry with more capable, qualified, and specialized people,” said Víctor Fuentes, senior manager of sales and marketing.
This interest in Mexican innovation at large is revealed by the company’s annual donations to universities doing work in automation fields. Each year, it chooses two academic institutions to receive 4 million pesos ($194,000) in the latest Mitsubishi Electric automated equipment for their laboratories.
Global telecom giant Nokia also sees “lots on the horizon” in Mexico, according to Santiago Escalona, head of marketing.
“But it still has a ways to go,” he said. “The problem is that the digital transformation isn’t only about selling technology, it’s also a cultural shift. We have to change our modes of operation, how we think, and this will gradually change.”
He highlighted the importance of links between academia and the private sector, something he was happy to see evident at the fair. “Generally at fairs like this, there’s a very small connection between these two sectors, but here I see that the National Polytechnic Institute has a booth bigger than ours. I love that, really, because what I see is interest in forming that link. It reveals progress and the decision by the universities to play a part in this transformation.”
The private sector and academia are two branches of the Guanajuato state government’s “triple helix” plan to promote everything Industry 4.0 in the region. Governor Diego Sinhue has dubbed the initiative the “Valley of Mind-ufacturing” (“Mentefactura” is the slightly less-clunky Spanish word that his administration invented).
Alberto Diosdado, head of Guanajuato’s STEM-focused public high school system known as Conalep, praised the state government’s involvement in developing young engineers. Its support of students’ access to robotics competitions has led to clear, quantifiable results. Students from the Conalep campus in the nearby city of Silao won the 2019 World Educational Robot Contest, and it’s sending more to Shanghai this December to defend the title.
The second and third place prizes both went to Guanajuato high schools that year. The winners of the elementary level competition were also from Guanajuato, and the runner up from that age group was from Monterrey, Nuevo León. Needless to say, Mexican robotics students have a lot to be excited about these days.
“Things are changing,” said Diosdado, citing the world of opportunities that has opened up to tech-minded young people in recent years. Combined with this rich pool of talent, Mexico’s location makes it a viable contender to outstrip China as the world’s leading producer of electric car parts, for example. The digital transformation everyone at ITM is talking about could have lasting generational change with respect to family incomes.
“That’s the idea, not just that a young person gets a good job, but to create generational prosperity within families,” said Diosdado.
Students at public high schools like Conalep get hands-on experience in robotics, mechatronics, and other Industry 4.0 tech at an early age. Roberto Huerta began studying robotics at a Conalep campus in the Gulf port city of Veracruz when he was just 14 years old.
Now 16, he and a classmate brought a pair of robots they themselves designed and are using in their school. Inspired by the unfortunate global event currently defining Huerta and his teammates’ high school experience, Coni and Coni 2 were built to perform protective measures like taking students’ temperatures and dispensing sanitizer. They also read ID cards to take attendance and communicates this information to school administrators.
Huerta said that he is positive about his future in the automated technology industry in Mexico, possibly in prosthetics. “I want to go on to improve technology in a way that helps with social problems,” he said.
Undergrads studying with Urrutia and Vargas at UPAEP expressed similar optimism about their professional futures.
“The opportunity I found here at UPAEP to put me in contact with so many projects and new ideas is really opening up my eyes,” said Ana Catherine Cuevas, 20, who is in her first year at the university. She is interested in satellites, data sensors, and telecommunications, and is working with classmate Steve Figueroa on that volcano sensor project the university put on hold when NASA asked it to build the cube satellite.
Figueroa, 22, found his interest in observation technologies piqued by his participation in the volcano monitoring project. Studying with people who have put a working satellite into orbit and had a hand in the construction of Mexico’s first robot, he is confident that he too will be able find success in the fields that interest him.
“The foundations have been laid,” he said. “We don’t have to start from scratch.”