Businesses adopting robots for new tasks

But will the machines and their ilk take away jobs -- even white-collar ones?

Thanks to better sensors and other tech advances, robots are being used for new applications, including quality control.

When Christian Johnson began his summer 2012 internship at the information management branch of NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., he little suspected that he'd soon be virtually tooling around the center via a vaguely humanoid robot on wheels.

Once classes began in the fall, the 18-year-old had to finish up his senior year of high school in Buffalo, N.Y., and needed to telecommute to continue his work as data analytics specialist at the research center. One of his co-workers had heard about a company called VGo Communications that makes a wheeled personal avatar, or what it calls a "productivity improvement solution," that lets people see and hear -- and be seen and be heard -- from far away.

The co-worker wrote a proposal urging Langley's CIO to buy a VGo unit, and the CIO's office approved the purchase of one of the robotic avatars so that Johnson could use it to move virtually through the building and attend meetings -- just one of the new ways robots are making their mark in business today.

Industrial robots have been around since the early 1960s and have been used mainly in automotive plants. As they have gained more sophisticated sensors in the past decade or so, they have increasingly been used in other fields, including healthcare, the military and public safety. Robots have even been used for underwater applications.

According to the "World Robotics" report (download PDF) from the International Federation of Robotics, 2011 was the most successful year for industrial robots since 1961, with sales increasing by 38% to 166,028 units. The main countries for growth were China, the United States and Germany, although Japan remained on top.

U.S. shipments of robots hit a high of 20,555 units in 2011, up 43% from 2010, according to the IFR, which predicts that more than 1.5 million industrial robots will be in operation worldwide in 2015.

These days, robots are taking on more advanced duties in manufacturing and logistics, are being adopted by smaller companies and are making their way into office environments, as Johnson and his co-workers discovered firsthand.

The VGo unit that Langley purchased is equipped with a camera, microphones and video display on a 4-foot-tall motorized platform. Once Johnson installed specialized software on his computer at home in Buffalo, he was able to log on to the VGo device to have a 20-minute conversation with a co-worker or even "attend" meetings lasting several hours. Traditional teleconferencing or even telepresence systems wouldn't have met his needs, he says, because he had to be able to move around the building to get his job done.

Telecommuting via bot

With a robotic avatar, "you have more control over where you're going and, more importantly, you can interact with people in a room in a much more hands-on manner and get a feel for who's in the room," Johnson says. "That can get confusing when you're on a large teleconference."

"It took some getting used to," he acknowledges, explaining that there are two ways to control the VGo unit: using a combination of arrow keys on the keyboard, or via VGo's on-screen interface. Johnson opted for the latter approach. The interface features a half-circle that overlays an image of the view that's capture by the unit's webcam; if you drag your mouse in the direction you want to go, the bot will start moving that way. Johnson says it's almost like a drag-and-drop system: the farther you drag the mouse toward the top of the half circle, the faster the unit goes.

Sometimes Johnson's avatar would bump into things, especially since, to keep costs down, VGo opted not to put arms on its units. He also found it a challenge to press the handicapped access pad outside a door to open it. "It was much easier to wait for a co-worker and drive with him," he says. While Johnson isn't sure what Langley paid for the unit, he says that VGo devices have retail price tags of about $6,000.

Johnson has since graduated from high school and will attend the University of Maryland, College Park, in the fall. He says he hopes to be able to stay on at Langley and continue telecommuting while in college. He says there were no real negatives to the VGo robot; he liked the video quality and performance, and the center purchased a 12-hour extended battery, which he says were very useful. In terms of future improvements he'd like to see, Johnson says it would be nice to have some kind of "joystick mechanism" to maneuver the unit.

Using robots to stay relevant

Think Logistics, a Vaughan, Ontario-based third-party provider of supply chain services, has been thinking about its future. Its parent company, Duplium Corp., is a successful optical disk manufacturer that has produced CDs, DVDs and packaged disks for 15 to 20 years. But the handwriting is on the wall for Duplium: The software and entertainment industries have become heavily focused on digital downloads, making it hard to predict how long optical media will remain relevant, says Stuart Pearson, vice president of contract logistics at Think Logistics.

Think Logistics decided to concentrate on logistics -- shipping a wide variety of products to consumers on behalf of its clients, which include retail stores and distribution centers, he says, since that is a growth area and a natural fit for the company, which already has experience in shipping and logistics.

But that type of logistics -- handling individual units rather than cartons of products -- is not very automated, Pearson adds, and the company figured there had to be a way to change that. The way to gain a competitive edge in processing orders, Think Logistics believed, was through robotics. Unlike traditional third-party logistics providers, which typically don't make capital investments in automation technology until they have a contract with a customer and can amortize the investment over the life of the contract, Think Logistics had the "desire, interest and aptitude from a capital perspective" to bring in cutting-edge technology from the very beginning.

The company turned to Kiva Systems. Acquired by Amazon in 2012, Kiva is a provider of automated systems for storing and handling physical goods. Pearson had seen a demo of Kiva's technology at a trade show, and he felt it had the flexibility to handle many different product types -- a capability that Think Logistics needed. Kiva "has an inherent flexibility in that its storage system can store anything from a small part to a large item or garment on a hanger," says Pearson.

The Kiva robotic fulfillment system is in use at Think Logistics' 124,000-sq.-ft. warehouse, where 15 bright orange robotic drive units are assigned multiple tasks, such as picking up a shelf unit (known as an "inventory pod") or traveling to another section of the facility to bring an item to a person receiving inventory.

"If there's a mechanical issue or fault with one of the robots, that task can be reassigned to other units," says Pearson. Unlike traditional carousels that are commonly used by third-party logistics companies, he says, the Kiva units are "massively parallel, meaning you've got multiple, autonomous drive units or robots, so you don't have any single point of failure."

The fulfillment system was deployed in June 2012. Before that, Think Logistics did everything manually and used static shelving and pallet-racking systems for storage. "We would have our associates walking with pick carts or pallet jacks into our storage system to manually pick out product and put product away," Pearson says.

Think Logistics didn't have to lay off any employees when it started using Kiva equipment. Instead, a combination of business growth and improvements in efficiency driven by the new technology made it possible for people to handle more tasks and be more productive, Pearson says. In a typical e-commerce warehouse, workers spend 40% to 60% of their time walking around picking up goods, counting goods or putting goods away. The Kiva system has eliminated almost all of that walk time, he says.

Now, people are "focused on other aspects of the business -- receiving products and packing orders," says Pearson. "And because of growth, they're able to be more efficient in the work activities that add value to the work we do."

Up-and-coming robots

There are dozens of companies with prototypes of robots that are designed to perform or help with a variety of tasks. Many are years in the making. Here's a roundup of some.

  • IBM and EMC are piloting a version of iRobot's Roomba vacuum cleaner to patrol data centers and measure temperature and humidity. The robot has sensors and a webcam and is programmed to see where hotspots are developing and determine if any cold air is being wasted. The goal is to use the resulting maps to cool the hardware and save energy by making cooling systems more efficient.
  • Still in development is a snake -- a multijointed robot -- that recently slithered and crawled its way around the Zwentendorf nuclear power plant in Austria as a test of its maneuverability. The robot, developed at Carnegie Mellon University, can inspect areas of the power plant that had been considered unreachable.
  • Another recent innovation is Solarbrush, a robotic cleaning system for solar panels, which can lose up to 35% of their efficiency if they are soiled with sand, dust or other debris, according to the Berlin-based maker of the technology. Solarbrush is the brainchild of Ridha Azaiz, who developed the first prototype at 13. Now 27, Azaiz has designed Solarbrush to clean and maintain photovoltaic (PV) cells in arid regions of the world; the system is in trials at companies in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, a company spokesman says.
  • Farming is a big target for robotic automation. For example, mapping and navigation technology company Vision Robotics is developing prototypes of an automated tool that wine makers can use to prune grape vines. The tool uses cameras and computers to create 3D models of grape vines. The images are fed into a computer, which then tells a robotic arm how much to clip. The company also sells a robotic lettuce trimmer. According to Vision Robotics President Bret Wallach, the device does the work of dozens of people and was developed in response to requests from farmers who said they are having trouble finding workers.
  • Lettuce Bot, from Blue River Technology, is another robotic machine for tending lettuce that's in testing. A tractor-towed device, Lettuce Bot can thin a field of lettuce in the time it would take 20 people to do the job by hand, according to Blue River, which has raised over $3 million in venture capital. Blue River is also working on systems for weeding organic fields. These agricultural robots are not expected to be commercially available for a few years.
  • A humanoid robot named ATLAS, whose goal is to advance disaster response, was recently unveiled by DARPA. Designed by Boston Dynamics, ATLAS is 6 feet, 2 inches tall, weighs 330 lbs. and is capable of a range of natural movements, according to DARPA. "ATLAS is one of the most advanced humanoid robots ever built, but is essentially a physical shell for the software brains and nerves that the teams will continue to develop and refine," DARPA said in a statement.
  • New York-based Yotel, a futuristic hotel, has partnered with robotic systems maker MFG Automation to use a robotic arm to manage the storage of guests' luggage. Dubbed Yobot, the device brings a container to an area where guests can drop off their luggage and then stores it in one of 117 bins. Guests enter a PIN and their last name and are issued a receipt with a bar code by Yobot. They turn in their receipts when they're ready to pick up their bags. CEO Gerard Greene says Yotel has agreements with JFK and Newark airports to have Yobot transfer luggage from tunnels through the airports so guests can pick up their bags at terminals.

Additionally, having the system means Think Logistics can ship more orders than it could have previously with the same number of people, and it can ship those orders more quickly. "We look at it as a force multiplier," he says.

The system has some built-in intelligence, so if there is existing inventory of the same item being received and stored on a mobile shelving unit and the retailer's instructions allow for it, the system will consolidate that inventory before utilizing empty bins. For example, Pearson says, "if I have an iPhone 5 in a location and room for two more, and if business rules permit you to put more there, it will bring you the product and say, 'Here's space for two more.' And conversely, if you tell the system that has to receive 20, it will look for a space for 20. So it's very dynamic that way."

Think Logistics can enhance the configuration options Kiva provides, and it can tailor the way it uses a system to match a retailer's needs.

Pearson estimates that Think Logistics will see a return on its multimillion-dollar investment for the 15 units in approximately two years. He says the company purchased more capacity than it needs "so we can quickly onboard new clients as we grow our business."

Packing funky parts

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