Robotics companies often cite productivity improvements as the first benefit in robotics. At the same time, robotics and the workforce can be like oil and water. On the one hand, robots can make a complicated job easier, faster, and more enjoyable. On the other hand, the robots themselves can be complicated, take months to implement, require a roboticist for maintenance, and upend years of established processes. At worst, the robots could end up replacing jobs.
Do robots at the workplace always have to be an either/or situation? Or can we design them in a way to create a symbiotic relationship between good workers and good robots? Jason Walker, CEO of Waypoint Robotics, thinks the industry can, by designing them to work for the front-line workers, not next to them or instead of them.
“State of the art of robotics, while it’s progressing very fast, isn’t so miraculously good that robots can be dropped into places and you walk away and magic happens and everything works perfectly,” said Walker in a discussion with Robotics Business Review. “They need help from people. Likewise, there are a lot of tasks that people could use help with from robots. For Waypoint, the underlying premise has been that people and robots working together are much more powerful and effective than just people or just robots.”
Designing for the worker
Walker said Waypoint’s philosophy in this fourth wave of industry is to have the robotics industry rethink the way robots are designed from the ground up. It calls for a design mind-shift, where the workforce is placed at the center, and plays a role in every design decision. Waypoint calls this philosophy “Designing for Bobby [or Betty]”, and it might change the way workforces and robots interact.
“We created a persona of someone named Bobby or Betty, who has been at a company for 10 to 15 years,” said Walker. “They are smart, know and love their job more than anyone, and companies would love to hire 10 more of them if they could. But of course, there is only one.
When Waypoint is deciding whether to put in a feature, functionality, or an accessory, the team asks whether it would work for Bobby. “Would Bobby understand it? Would it be useful? If it doesn’t work for Bobby, then we don’t put it in,” said Walker. “If Bobby doesn’t need it, we don’t put it in. If Bobby can’t make sense of it, we go back to the drawing board and figure out how to automate it, remove it, or solve the problem in some other way.”
This design concept often overcomes many of the hurdles surrounding the adoption of robotics in companies, Walker said. Designing this way often means less disruption in the workplace, from the size and space required, to complexity and the ability for the workforce to setup and reconfigure robots themselves. It also means designing robots that work right out of the box, he said.
“In the early days of AGVs [Automated Guided Vehicles], the amount of disruption required to be able to install those things, like taking your factory offline, you really had to change everything you do,” said Walker. “AMRs [Autonomous Mobile Robots] are the next iteration, but even now we still hear that deployment time is days or weeks or even months. It used to be true that if you bring in a robot, you need to bring in a roboticist or a team of them. With our robots, because we focus so much on the user experience to make it a tool that smart line workers on the job today can use immediately, the deployment time is down to hours. We can hand them control with minimal instruction and they can be up and running in no time at all.”
Rethinking robot design
While this has been successful for Waypoint, the next question is whether the “Bobby” philosophy can be applied to all robotics design. Walker thinks it can. “I think absolutely, yes. We think this is something that the robotics community ought to be doing, thinking about the workforce, embracing the workforce and designing for the workforce,” he said.
Walker explained that people purchasing robots also need to expect more when they go shopping for a robot. Companies should expect that the robots work with the people they have working today, and that it can be set up in a single afternoon.
“The more robotics companies start to think about the workforce before they start designing their products and continue to think about them throughout the whole process, the better it’s going to be for the workers, for the robotics companies, for the companies, for the economy, and for society as a whole.”
Walker will speak more on designing for Bobby and more at RoboBusiness 2019 Oct 1 – 3, in Santa Clara, Calif. (Note: Robotics Business Review produces RoboBusiness.)