Rethink has signed more channel partners to distribute the Sawyer collaborative robot.

Rethink has signed more channel partners to distribute the Sawyer collaborative robot.

July 27, 2013      

A new idea from a new technology

We knew that one would eventually arrive, didn’t we? Robot rentals. It’s in Holland, Mich., a start-up about 150 miles north of Chicago that supplies dual-arm, Motoman co-worker robots as contract workers.

dexterBot in action

For $35 per hour, which comes out to $8 per hour if you work the robot 24/7, so says the rental company, anyone can contract with Steel-Collar Associates for their very own robots for hire.

Officially, as the website for Steel-Collar Associates says, the company is “a Motoman Robotics strategic partner company that supplies Motoman humanoid industrial robots to industry as contracted hourly employees.”

In Yaskawa/Motoman, Steel-Collar Associates has robot manufacturer as part of the play, which may help the fledgling idea buy a little time for the business plan to take root.

This “first” in the robotics revolution is as important as the robots themselves. Bill Higgins, the guy behind this start-up, has provided the great equalizer to every small and midsize business (SMB) — and maybe even wider penetration to businesses with seasonal needs like harvesting oranges or apples. Don’t buy; just rent a crew of steel-collar worker for the harvest.

There’s a vast market in waiting

Although it’s still premature for orange-picking robots, the idea is the same. In fact, Carnegie Mellon, Toro, and John Deere are working together at prototyping such fruit pickers. Steel-Collar Associates is just a bare beginning, but could well be a great beginning for co-worker robots.

Of course, the machine that Higgins contracts out is expensive: It’s a Motorman Dexter Bot that sells for six figures, as opposed to Rethink’s Baxter at $22,000 or Universal Robot’s $34,000 entry. Yet Dexter Bot is the better machine. However, is “better” the key factor to rental success?

Next up: Lowe’s, Home Depot, Rent-A-Tool and U-Haul. It will be or should be agenda item number one at all of their management meetings. Each has financial reach and distribution, which will go a long way in getting robots to SMB loading docks.

For SMBs, it’s a unique, low-cost entry point to their workflows. Higgins’ idea has legs; it could well be the turning point in the proliferation of co-worker robots.

The market is there. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the SMB community is 27 million strong. Of that mass, Rethink Robotics’ research claims that there are 300,000 businesses with a need for at least one robot worker.

Is this how the new immigrants will arrive?

Not by ship embarking at Ellis Island, but from rental stores by the thousands offering up steel-collar temp workers by the tens of thousands.

They will come, not in waves at first, but in teeny ripples, these new immigrants, who will start showing up with ever more frequency in our factories and warehouses. Are rentals the looming key to mass proliferation of these co-worker robots?

The New Immigrants: Steel-Collar Workers for Rent

The jobs they will take on will be the familiar immigrant scenario from the past: grungy, oftentimes boringly tedious labor without a scintilla of hope for career advancement. Jobs certainly no human aspires to: a job with no future.

These new immigrants, however, will take on those jobs and won’t even require a modest paycheck for their labor.

Robots, yes, but not the burly ones that preceded them for generations: brutes anonymously toiling away caged and segregated in foundries or on auto assembly lines. Rather, these new immigrants, of slighter build yet more wiry, are out in the open. With their 6- and 7-axis arms they can contort into most any position and work tirelessly, all the while standing shoulder to shoulder with a human. They are known to us now as co-worker robots.

Then comes the takeover

Over time, each will undergo software and hardware and sensor upgrades, as well as upgrades to their tasks. Their human work mates will grow old and retire, their work stations taken over by yet other new immigrants. Sooner than later, even the “co” in co-worker robot will vanish; the jobs will be relegated to robots and become known only as steel-collar work.

Those jobs will no longer be advertised in the classifieds, disappearing forever, like so many jobs before them. Jobs meant only for steel-collar workers. Humans will have near forgotten that there was a time when they were the ones who labored at such jobs.

Full-time, part-time, temp or rent-to-own, there’s a co-worker robot to fit nearly most any budget, will read the adverts that are sure to spring up as the rental concept takes off.

A big idea from a small city on the shores of Lake Michigan may just be what catapults co-worker robots into a major steel-collar workforce.

Check out these co-worker thumbnails from Robotics Online to get a sense of what?s here now and what tasks are within their grasp.

Baxter: Rethink Robotics
A dual-arm humanoid robot introduced in Sept. 2012 has two 7-axis arms connected to a torso and sports an LCD display for a “face” that reacts to human interaction. He weighs in at 75 kg and has a maximum load capacity of 2.3 kg per arm. Baxter has built-in sonar and camera sensors to detect humans when they enter his space, and integrated vision for object detection. At 0.6 m per second carrying maximum payload, Baxter is one of the slower collaborative robots, but that?s not his forte.

“Baxter is best suited to tasks that are repetitive and don’t require a lot of skill, but require some of the common sense of a human being,” said Mitch Rosenberg, vice president of marketing and product management at Rethink Robotics

Dexter Bot: Yaskawa Motoman

A dual-arm robot has 15 axes, including two 7-axis arms connected to a torso that rotates at the waist. Dexter Bot has been in the manufacturing space for more than two years and is available in different payloads from 5 kg up to 20 kg per arm.

Dexter Bot, with a six-figure price tag, maintains the speed, precision and performance expectation of traditional robots.

“Yaskawa is more geared toward process and assembly, where you have to fit this connector into that slot,” said the company. “For these kinds of applications, you better have repeatability on the order of one-tenth millimeter.”

LBR iiwa:KUKA

KUKA?s lightweight robot, the LBR iiwa (for intelligent industrial work assistant) was introduced at Hannover Messe 2013 in Germany. Developed under a technology transfer agreement with the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and was originally designed for use in outer space.

“The LBR iiwa is particularly adept at force-guided assembly tasks, such as gear meshing, peg in hole insertion, and snap fitting,” said Michael Gerstenberger, a KUKA senior engineer.

UR: Universal Robots

A 6-axis single-arm robot introduced in 2013. Since 2009, the Danish manufacturer has sold a reported 2,000 robots around the globe. The base model sells for $34,000. The UR series comes in two models, 5-kg and 10-kg payload arms, with the smaller payload arm, the UR5, weighing in at 18 kg. It has a speed rating of 1m per second and runs on single-phase AC power.

“Applications that are very repetitive, mundane tasks that require an operator to stand at a machine all day or sometimes all night long, loading/unloading and initiating processes. That’s the exact type of application suited for our product,” said Edward Mullen, national sales manager for Universal Robots. “It’s very easy to use and set up; and it can be picked up and moved around the facility very easily.”

Dual-Arm: ABB

ABB’s dual-arm concept was developed in response to demand for collaborative robots in small-part assembly operations common in the consumer electronics industry and other sectors. The 14-axis prototype has flexible grippers, camera-based part location, and ABB’s IRC5 controller integrated in the torso. According to the robot manufacturer, further development and refinement are under way as a result of positive reaction to its initial effort.