Barry Clark’s career has been characterized by tackling projects that on the surface seem straightforward – but in reality are deceptively challenging.
As co-CTO of SoftWear Automation, he’s disrupting the $100B sewn products industry by replacing sewing labor with cutting-edge robotics. He’s also pursuing his Ph.D. in Robotics from The Ohio State University, with a focus on empowering walking robots and prosthetics to function better through a more complete understanding of how humans are able to walk without falling down.
Barry is a passionate lifelong learner who sees a bright future in the open source movement. He’s ready to cheer on anyone who’s doing what they love. His best advice? Get your hands dirty.
What projects are you currently working on?
Barry Clark: I have two paths. I work for an automated sewing company with novel IP moving away from hard automation in favor of soft automation. With fabric, the traditional method of clamping and treating it like a piece of steel doesn’t work, because textiles move in a way most metals don’t. So we use software improvements, computer vision, and other sensors to move this material like you would any other.
I’m also finishing my Ph.D. in mechanical engineering where I focus on human walking. If you look at current state-of-the-art robots, they’re phenomenally impressive. But even their performance pales compared to what a human can do. Human motion is both very efficient and very stable. My lab looks at locomotion through the lens of energetic optimality. I’m using metabolic-like cost functions in combination with mathematical optimization to better understand these characteristics in human walking and running.
How long have you been part of this industry?
Barry Clark: I entered grad school in 2010 with a desire to focus on robotics and controls. I’ve really been in the industry since 2013 when I joined the team at SoftWear Automation, which at the time was an ATDC company.
What changes have you seen for the positive?
Barry Clark: The push to open source makes it much easier to get your hands on complicated tools and dig through what a lot of really smart people have done, understand it, and implement it more quickly. That’s a really positive change that continues to grow exponentially.
For example, OpenCV is one of the big computer vision libraries. You can do some pretty interesting things once you know how to use that tool, and it’s available to anyone. Same thing with ROS on the control side; you can take lots of information from sensors and cameras and turn it into control signals without much effort. Those tools are widely available to students, industry, all kinds of people.
What changes have you seen for the negative?
Barry Clark: I don’t know that it’s a change, but the concept that robots will take jobs is very polarizing. There are studies out there that indicate that at least this far, automation has only done good things for workers. For the most part in the US, automation has created jobs and created more highly skilled workers, which makes people more valuable in a wider range of industries. That won’t hold true forever maybe, but people with factory jobs view robotics as a negative thing and it doesn’t need to be like that.
What draws you to the technology side of things?
Barry Clark: I’ve always liked making things work. Spending a lot of time in grad school (running on eight years now…) I’ve really bought into lifelong learning. Particularly, right now, if you took a month off you would miss quite a bit. I like the idea of continuing to grow and learn new things. I can’t imagine where the field will be in 30 years because of the amount of growth that will take place. It excites me that it’s ever changing and in order to be a leader in your field you have to be constantly learning and you have to be flexible.
Imagine you’re talking to a high school senior. What would you tell her to major in, and why?
Barry Clark: Major in whatever you’re passionate about and go all in on it. I knew people in college who had stereotypically “bad” majors like English, Anthropology, American Studies — things the classic father figure might be displeased with. But they all did really well because they went all in. They didn’t major in anthropology because it was easy, they majored in it because they were passionate about it. Do everything you can to become an expert in your field, broaden your skill set, and take advantage of opportunities. If you do that, whatever you major in, it will be okay.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in the industry?
Barry Clark: Three things. First, get involved in the open source movement. Second, be a generalist. Robotics is the complete blend of electrical, mechanical, computer, and materials science. It’s an amalgamation of all those things, so get your hands dirty early. Third, work on personal projects in your spare time. School can only teach you so much. If you can build your own robot or write your own code for a home automation project — all those things will help accelerate your understanding and be a better roboticist in the future.
What was your first job ever?
Barry Clark: I was a tennis camp counselor. (Being blond wasn’t a requirement.)
What is your must-have smartphone app?
Barry Clark: I try to stay off my phone but the app I, unfortunately, spend the most time on right now is — I have this Peak brain training app so I have all these little games on my phone that were kind of dumb. So now I play games that they say are helpful for cognitive function.
What are your 3 favorite technology tools you use throughout your day?
Barry Clark: My laptop is my overall favorite tool. After that, I really like python which is a fun, easy to use prototyping language. Google Docs and Google Sheets — the ability to edit the same document while you and your collaborators are in a different place is incredibly powerful. It sounds simple but that’s one of the more powerful tools I use.
If you could wave a magic wand and create a new technology, what would it be?
Barry Clark: I would create some sort of personal aircraft. The ability to go longer distances much more quickly on a much more straightforward path would be awesome.
Windows/MAC/Linux and why?
Barry Clark: For personal consumption, I’m a Mac guy for sure. For work, I like Linux. I feel like everything for programming and robotics works better in Linux.