In honor of Small Business Week, Inc. reporters deployed to several cities where they spent one day talking to owners and entrepreneurs in a particular sector about their challenges.

Robots allow manufacturers to operate more cheaply. But robots themselves aren't cheap, limiting the ability of small manufacturers to compete with larger companies or win back business from overseas. A Baltimore startup thinks it has a solution: robots as a service.

Industrial robots typically sell for $75,000 or more, a significant capital outlay. And that price tag escalates dramatically with operational costs. Ready Robotics, a startup housed in City Garage, a Baltimore center for makers, charges $1,500 to $4,000 a month for use of one of its robots, called the TaskMate. The TaskMate is easy to program and move around a factory floor. That suits it for the short production runs on which many small manufacturers survive.

Kelleher Guerin developed the underlying technology for TaskMate while working on his PhD and then as a post-doctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University. He built a prototype and partnered with Benjamin Gibbs, a tech transfer official at the university. Their focus was on medical applications until they met Drew Greenblatt, owner of Baltimore-based Marlin Steel, a 30-employee maker of industrial baskets. Greenblatt invited them to tour Marlin's factory floor, where he explained the practical challenges faced by small manufacturers like himself. Soon after, Guerin and Gibbs pivoted toward industry.

Ready Robotics launched in June of last year, with Gibbs as CEO, Guerin as CTO, and Greenblatt as industry adviser.

"When Ford deploys a bunch of robots to make a new car, and it takes a year to set up the factory, they are fine with that because they're going to make that car for 10 years and amortize the effort," says Guerin. "Drew might have a job that takes two weeks. We were thinking, how do you have an industrial robot that helps in that situation?"

Ready Robotics' solution is a robotic arm that can be swiftly programmed to perform new tasks and is packaged with an assortment of grippers, pneumatic air tools, and other peripherals that transform it into a kind of automated Swiss Army knife. The robot, which comes with a stand, can also operate existing tools such as lathes, mills, and band saws, freeing up workers for more valuable assignments. While TaskMate is deployable in most industries, the company's initial focus is on metal forming, food production, plastics, and textiles.

The product is optimized for use by a blue-collar workforce. "We have trained people to do this in under two hours who are complete novices," says Guerin. "No automation experience. No robotics experience. The bar is very low."

Johns Hopkins owns the core technology, which Ready Robotics licenses on an exclusive basis. "We have been filing our own patents on top of that," says Gibbs. "So we have a really robust portfolio protecting the technology."

Ready Robotics, which has 12 employees including Gibbs and Guerin, has raised $3.75 million in a seed round and is embarking on a Series A. That money will allow the company to expand outside the Baltimore market, where it has two customers--one of them Marlin Steel--and proposals out to another three. Guerin estimates that within six months it will have produced and rented 60 units. In a year: double that.

On a recent day, a TaskMate could be found making wire forms for a telecom product near the entrance to Marlin's factory floor. It is the ultimate utility player, explains Greenblatt, switchable within a few hours among most of the 10 or 12 jobs the plant has going at one time. (Greenblatt is a nationally known voice for small manufacturing. Ready Robotics is his first entrepreneurial venture; he acquired Marlin.)

"The real American factory has runs of five and then 300 and then 50 and then 600--peanut runs," says Greenblatt. "You have to be nimble, adaptable, constantly changing over and making new fixtures."

"This is how small companies are going to automate," says Greenblatt. "This is how we will revolutionize American industry."

Published on: May 1, 2017