Like human factory workers, robots depend on conveyor belts and other machines to bring them parts. The conveyor systems are custom-designed for the robots, but can't be changed easily when the robots take on a different task. This situation gave Mitchell Weiss, who had already founded and sold a robot company, the idea for a start-up.

Now ProgramMation Inc., of Paoli, Pa., is designing flexible systems to move work from robot to robot. Its first product, a programmable conveyor system for semiconductor manufacturers, works like a model railroad that moves parts around on a track with switches to change the flow's direction. Comprised of standard modules, it can be rearranged to form different systems. ProgramMation has sold two systems, and is working on a second product -- a "smart" parts feeder that could, for example, give a robot bolts one day and screws the next without being redesigned.

Weiss is marketing to consulting firms and other companies that design automation systems for factories, a strategy he hopes will give him an edge as competitors enter a now-uncrowded market.