Small-business owners who watched last year's 60 Minutes segment on Amazon's use of robots may have written off robotic technology as too expensive for use in smaller companies, but a new wave of relatively inexpensive robots are gradually proving that assumption wrong.
So-called collaborative robots priced as low as $20,000 are increasing productivity at some small businesses by working with employees, rather than replacing them. As the Wall Street Journal reports, one robot working at Illinois-based machine shop Panek Precision has doubled the output of a machine that used to be operated by a human by working through the night.
The real advantage to these robots, however, is their ability to perform a variety of tasks, as opposed to the large, industrial robots used by assembly lines to do the same thing repeatedly. Collaborative robots can also roam free on factory floors, rather than being bolted to a single location, and have safety sensors that prevent them from running into humans.
"Having the robots has allowed us to move our existing workers into more useful tasks," Gregg Panek, owner of Panek Precision, told WSJ, adding that despite his use of robots, his small business will "always need people." (While Panek didn't specify whether he might need fewer people once the robots pick up certain tasks, as of now he appears to be using robots to increase productivity, rather than cut costs by reducing employee headcount)
Panek has 21 single-arm robots in his factory, most of which move parts in and out of metal cutting machines, but dual arm robots designed for increasingly sophisticated automation are also on the way.
Industrial robotics company ABB recently unveiled its human-friendly YuMi robot, whose name is short for "you and me." YuMi was designed to perform precision tasks for the consumer electronics industry, but the company has plans to expand its use into other markets. The robot can handle tiny components of mechanical wristwatches and mobile phones and even has the precision to thread a needle.
"YuMi will open endless possibilities," ABB's head of Discrete Automation and Motion, Pekka Tiitinen, told Manufacturers' Monthly. ABB plans to launch YuMi for commercial use in April 2015.
The use of robots for small-business manufacturing and other processes is expected to grow beyond just a handful of early adopters, however. Global spending on robotics is projected to spike from roughly $15 billion in 2010 to about $67 billion in 2015, according to a study from The Boston Consulting Group. While the investment data covers the entire robotics market, including personal robots for household duties, robots used for medical purposes and military robots, industrial robots for factory automation are expected to account for the largest chunk of investment, growing from nearly $6 billion in 2010 to more than $24 billion by 2025
"As a small business grows, it is critical that they invest whenever possible into automation," Cameron Baird, the chief executive of shipping services company CargoBarn, an Inc. 500 alum, told Inc. last year when asked about Amazon's use of robots. "The most efficient companies leverage technology to streamline processes, promote cost savings, and cut down on errors."