Tomas Gorny, co-founder and CEO of Nextiva, a cloud-based phone-service provider in Scottsdale, Arizona, spends half his time traveling. But even when he's out of the office, he's in, in the form of a telepresence robot from Double Robotics. Dubbed Double TG, it's an endearingly awkward union of iPad, selfie stick, Skype, and Segway. "As a communications company, we have a lot of technologies to stay connected, including videoconferencing," says Gorny. "But one of the most effective ways to feel like I'm in the room is by using my robot."
Telepresence is the latest recruit in the robot revolution. Robot sales set records in 2014, when, according to the Robotic Industries Association, an industry trade group, 25,425 robots valued at $1.5 billion were delivered to customers, up 13 percent from 2013.
You may be more robot-ready than you think. Telepresence-robot makers--including Suitable Technologies, Anybots, VGo, and iRobot--are leading the charge beyond manufacturing and into health care and education, among other areas. The bots are increasingly affordable, too, ranging from $2,500 for the Double Robotics bot to $2,500 a month to lease an iRobot/Cisco AVA robot.
Particularly to smaller manufacturers, Boston-based Rethink Robotics pitches its relatively affordable Baxter and Sawyer robots ($25,000 and up) as "work force multipliers." Unlike earlier industrial robots, Rethink's machines, which have arms and a digital "face," can be "taught" new tasks by demonstration, rather than by being reprogrammed.
Of course, you may need a highly trained person to work with a robot. Other costs include power, maintenance, security, and software integration that will require your IT department's input. Too much of a bother? Outsourcing and rent-a-bot services are available, especially in areas such as logistics.
In a more artisanal example of robot outsourcing, BodyLogicMD, a franchise of clinics doing hormone-replacement therapy, started sending patients handwritten reminders that appear to be in their own writing--created by calligraphy robots that take a writing sample and then work from a text message to produce customized cards. The robo-writers are based in New York City at a startup called Bond, which launched in 2013 and has customers in retail, real estate, and the nonprofit sector. "It's not cheap," says Brandon Seymour, BodyLogic's director of SEO. "But it's a more humanistic approach to communicating with patients via direct mail."
Don't bother asking whether you can be replaced by a machine. A recent study by the University of Oxford estimates that, within two decades, nearly half of all occupations (lawyers, managers) will be replaceable by robots or software. Maybe even entrepreneurs?
How are robot orders are distributed across the economy?
Auto parts: components, chassis, suspension: 29%
Carmakers: welding, body assembly: 27%
Metals: material handling, welding: 11%
Consumer goods: logistics: 7%
Rx, biomedical research: lab work: 6%
All others: semiconductors, electronics, plastics, etc.: 20%
Bot or not? Hiring a nonhuman
What's your cost of labor?
Manufacturers turn to robots when the cost of using one is 15 percent less than employing a human, according to a study by Boston Consulting Group. The gap is often greater than that. Automakers pay human welders $25 an hour, while robot welders cost $8 an hour. Can you quantify your expenses to make an apples-to-apples comparison?
Is the job repetitive or dangerous, or does it demand an inhuman level of precision?
Even if a human can do a job, is it worth the potential liability, or the high pay that comes with hazardous or otherwise demanding labor, from heavy-duty welding or the handling of toxic materials to all kinds of microfabrication that requires fine hand-eye coordination?
Will you need a robot wrangler?
No one likes a high-maintenance employee--human or otherwise. Do you have staff to deal with robot upkeep? What do repairs cost? If a robot breaks down, will it affect your entire business? Make sure you understand the complexity and reliability of any prospective robot hire, just as you would for a human.
Happy to Serve
An expanding job list
Keep a lookout
Companies like Berkeley, California--based 3D Robotics are lining up customers for aerial surveillance drones that can fly autonomous missions over everything from farm fields to building sites to factory floors.
Intellibot Robotics, of Portland, Oregon, is the only U.S. manufacturer of robotic commercial floor cleaners--industrial Roombas--that use stored maps and sensors to vacuum, sweep, and scrub floors in offices, hotels, and factories.
Orchard Supply Hardware, owned by Lowe's, is testing multilingual bots that greet and assist customers. Made by a Fellow Robots/Singularity University partnership, the OSHbot lets shoppers navigate its menu for items, or have the bot do it and then lead them to the right aisle.
Chat with customers
Firms such as Nuance and Pandorabots allow clients to build A.I.-driven "virtual agents" that can conduct live text or voice chats with customers and point them to services, answer questions, or run tutorials.
Los Angeles startup Hoovy uses banner-flying drones to float ads above retail stores, at the beach, and at live events.
The Grid.io uses an A.I. bot to create customized websites for businesses. The sites are then updated with real-time analytics.
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The Associated Press has been using robot-written updates produced by Automated Insights, a natural language-generation platform that converts raw data into a short story.