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December 31, 2013 > Science around us

Science around us

Submitted By Bruce Roberts

While teaching 7th grade history for 35 years, every year IÕd find a boy bending a paper clip totally out of shape, rendering it useless. Time for my lecture on the anonymous geniuses responsible for much of human progress. From the first hunter-gatherer who watched iron ore melt in the campfire, to whoever blended metals, or thought of the utilitarian shape of a paperclip and then devised machines to make them, and the packaging, and the marketingÑour industrial history is full of unknown geniuses.

I thought of this recently while visiting Cognex, a technology-oriented company located in Hayward. Thirty years ago, its founder, Dr. Bob ShillmanÑa professor at M.I.T.Ñcame up with an original modification of an existing idea: Òoptical character recognition,Ó adapted for use in a manufacturing environment. I watched in fascination as on their website, item after item sailed past their small bank of cameras, which then recorded with a red or green light whether each object met company standards. CognexÕs cameras can now not only tell if a productÑany productÑis defective, it can pinpoint the source of the problem. Based in the Boston area, Cognex now employs 1,100 people researching and producing such camera systems that have world wide application, wherever quality control is a concern. Yet until this visit to their Hayward site, I had no idea they existed.

The motto at Cognex is ÒWork hard, play hard, move fast, make it right!Ó Obviously Òmake it rightÓ is vital for a company not only producing its own products, but products that assess the ÒrightnessÓ of other companiesÕ products. Somewhere between the other factors of this success-oriented motto, Cognex has also dedicated itself to community giving. To this end, they have been a major contributor to the Hayward Education Foundation (H.E.F.), a local non-profit that grants money to teachers with creative ideas that are science or technology-oriented, ideas that cannot be funded from ever-shrinking school budgets.

Cognex believes that this yearÕs school kids can be next yearÕs scientists. Last year, for example, working through the Hayward Education Foundation, Cognex funded two Lego related robotics projects: Build to Express at Harder Elementary and Mindstorm at Martin Luther King Middle School. In addition, their community giving program supported a Tech Challenge at Schafer Park Elementary, and a project to teach solar energy by building solar cars at Bret Harte Middle School. This year, H.E.F. has submitted five more science-oriented grant proposals to Cognex for approval, which has H.E.F., five teachers, and five sets of students on pins and needles to see if they are accepted.

Even though science is their focus, Cognex does support a wider range of community activities. Their company has been known to support police and fire departments and libraries, and even school graduation parties. Anything is possible. WhatÕs important also though is their philosophy that since this branch of the company is in Hayward, local activities are what they will support. CognexÕs Community Giving Program, partnering with Hayward Education Foundation, is clearly a boon to the Hayward community.

HereÕs hoping that all this scientific/technological support turns out new generations of geniusesÑanonymous or otherwiseÑto further improve the world we live in.

Bruce Roberts serves on the Board of Directors of the Hayward Education Foundation.

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