Should You Hire a Ro­bot?

In­creas­ingly, ro­bots are small, por­ta­ble, easy to train, and within fi­nan­cial reach for many busi­nesses. Should you add one to your team?

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which is based in Mi­ami, makes a spill-proof table­top pager for the hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try, but the prod­uct was plagued by a dou­ble-digit fail­ure rate due to hu­man as­sem­bly er­rors, says chief in­no­va­tion of­fi­cer Ei­nar Rosen­berg. So he brought in a Univer­sal Ro­bots model UR3 col­lab­o­ra­tive ro­bot (cobot for short) that’s de­signed to work along­side hu­mans, not re­place them. He used it for three cru­cial, very pre­cise tasks, such as ap­ply­ing a spot of sealant in­side the de­vice’s alu­minum hous­ing. The fail­ure rate dropped to less than 1 per­cent. The cobot “saved us from go­ing un­der,” Rosen­berg says.

Cobots are the fastest-grow­ing seg­ment in the au­to­ma­tion uni­verse. Two play­ers dom­i­nate: Univer­sal Ro­bots, based in Odense, Den­mark, and Bos­ton’s Re­think Ro­bot­ics, whose co-founder, MIT’s Rod­ney Brooks, is a co-founder of iRobot, maker of the Roomba vacuum cleaner. Cobots gen­er­ally don’t need com­pli­cated cod­ing, and they’re cheap (less than $50,000 all-in). Or you can rent one. On the down­side, cobots can’t lift more than a few pounds or reach more than a few feet. They’re slow—oth­er­wise they’d out­pace their hu­man co-work­ers—and they’re new, so no one knows their ac­tual life­span, but early adopters are fans. They share their ideas for bring­ing cobots onto your team. —DAVID WHIT­FORD PICK YOUR SPOTS

Acorn Sales, a maker of cus­tom rub­ber stamps in Rich­mond, Vir­ginia, with a dozen em­ploy­ees and less than $ 2 mil­lion in sales, sells a lot of prod­uct on­line, and its mar­gins are tight. “I’m al­ways look­ing for ways to get more ef­fi­cient,” says CEO Adam Raid­abaugh. Acorn put its $30,000 cobot to work cut­ting wooden blocks down to size and drilling mount­ing holes in them—a task it per­forms bet­ter, faster, and cheaper in-house than Acorn’s

for­mer sup­plier did. Cobots also ex­cel at pick­ing stuff up over here and putting it down over there (us­ing grip­pers or suc­tion cups), spot weld­ing, spray-paint­ing, bend­ing, and other such mun­dane tasks. On the other hand, they’re not so good at vari­able tasks that re­quire dis­cern­ment or cre­ativ­ity. MAKE THE PROPER IN­TRO­DUC­TIONS Although 360,000 to 670,000 U.S. Jobs have al­ready been elim­i­nated be­cause of ro­bots, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for Eco­nomic and Pol­icy Re­search, a re­cent study it con­ducted found no ev­i­dence that “new tech­nolo­gies will make most jobs dis­ap­pear and hu­mans largely re­dun­dant.” But try telling that to your staff when a cobot shows up on the shop floor. Rosen­berg says he needed four long meet­ings to con­vince his em­ploy­ees at Cre­at­ing Rev­o­lu­tions that peo­ple were not go­ing to lose their jobs to cobots. He re­minded them that cobots spe­cial­ize in the dirty, dull, and dan­ger­ous jobs. Raid­abaugh had a sim­i­lar con­ver­sa­tion with his team. “We can now au­to­mate tasks no one likes to do,” he says. “That frees peo­ple up to do more mean­ing­ful work,” which can cre­ate growth op­por­tu­ni­ties for in­di­vid­u­als and the com­pa­nies they work for. Acorn has never had to lay any­body off in the 53 years since its found­ing, Raid­abaugh says, and it’s not about to start now. AS­SESS THE RISK

Dou­glas Pe­ter­son, GM of Univer­sal Ro­bots’ Amer­i­cas re­gion, in­sists he’s un­aware of a sin­gle in­stance in which a hu­man has been killed, maimed, or oth­er­wise in­jured by one of his com­pany’s ma­chines. Still, he rec­om­mends per­form­ing a thor­ough risk anal­y­sis be­fore you go live, just as you would with any new piece of fac­tory equip­ment. Joe McGil­livray, CEO of con­tract man­u­fac­turer Dy­namic Group in Ram­sey, Minnesota, had his doubts. So he pro­grammed his new cobot to take a swing at him. “It hit me in a fleshy part of my body and stopped,” he says; no harm done. That said, just be­cause a cobot won’t knock you over doesn’t mean you can put any old tool in its grip. “An open flame—or a chain­saw—on the end of a ro­bot with­out any guard­ing is al­ways unsafe,” says McGil­livray. SHOW­CASE YOUR COBOT What Cre­at­ing Rev­o­lu­tions’ Rosen­berg was look­ing for from his cobot was steady, re­li­able pro­duc­tion on the fac­tory floor, which he got. But this cobot, which he named Manuel, turned out to have hid­den white-col­lar skills—sales and mar­ket­ing. Rosen­berg no­ticed how visit­ing cus­tomers tour­ing his fa­cil­ity in­vari­ably grav­i­tated to Manuel, and were trans­fixed. So Rosen­berg made a video of the ro­bot. Now, on sales calls, sales­peo­ple first demon­strate the prod­uct—a high-tech pager that syncs with cus­tomers’ cell phones so they can in­stantly get their server’s at­ten­tion. Then they show the video. Manuel has be­come “a huge piece of clos­ing sales,” Rosen­berg says. “When peo­ple see the ro­bot in ac­tion—every sin­gle cus­tomer—that puts them over the edge. Their eyes light up.” Manuel is cool, for sure, but Rosen­berg also thinks Manuel re­as­sures cus­tomers who might be in­tim­i­dated by his prod­uct. “See­ing the ro­bot,” he says, “makes them feel like this is be­ing made by top-qual­ity tech­nol­ogy.”

STAMPING OUT IN­EF­FI­CIENCY Thanks to a cobot, the han­dles on these cus­tom rub­ber stamps, made by Acorn Sales, can be pro­duced more cheaply and more ef­fi­ciently in-house than by a con­trac­tor.

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