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The ‘cobots’ are coming. Is your IT team ready?

Cindy Waxer | May 17, 2017
These collaborative robots work alongside human employees, sending productivity sky-high. But IT teams must be prepared to take on complex programming, deal with connectivity issues and get used to sharing work space with 6-foot-tall machines.

It's for this reason that Creating Revolutions turned to Hirebotics. Essentially a staffing agency for cobots, Hirebotics lets startups like Creating Revolutions rent cobots by the hour without any upfront capital expenditures. Hirebotics handles all programming, deployment and maintenance of the machine, while Creating Revolutions pays for only the hours it's operable, nearly $5,000 per month.

"We're a startup so we couldn't afford a very expensive robot," says Rosenberg. "And we didn't have the expertise or the time to learn the software required to make the robot work for our needs. Economically, Hirebotics made sense."

Although it took a few weeks for Hirebotics to program Manuel, Rosenberg says it would have taken Creating Revolutions' IT team 10 times longer to withstand the "torture" of training the cobot to perform precision tasks. And because Manuel is connected to the cloud, Hirebotics can continuously monitor Manuel's performance in real time for fast detection of glitches.

 

Reduced overhead, increased workloads

Complex programming isn't the only obstacle IT leaders must overcome to reap the benefits of robotics. Consider, for example, Praxis Packaging Solutions. The contract packaging company owns 14 robots, including 13 Baxters — 300-pound, tomato-red, two-armed cobots; and one Sawyer, Baxter's single-armed, nimbler sibling, both from Rethink Robotics.

With unemployment rates hovering around the 2% mark near Praxis' western Michigan headquarters, Praxis CEO and president Richard King says, "We knew right away we'd be able to use Baxter to help fuel our growth."

Today, Praxis's band of Baxters perform a wide variety of repetitive tasks, from moving cardboard pieces to unpacking boxes. Programming Baxter is as simple and intuitive as "using an iPad," according to Chris Hager, former director of IT at Praxis, who continues to advise the company as an IT consultant with Ferox Consulting. That's because Baxter learns by demonstration — employees need only grab Baxter's arms and move them, simulating the tasks it will be doing.

Despite its simplicity, enlisting Baxter for a series of tasks required some heavy lifting from IT. Praxis often runs multiple packaging orders in a single shift. As a result, the company needed to equip Baxter with a variety of attachments to allow for different uses. A 3D printer proved to be the answer. Today, Praxis can create a number of end effectors — devices that attach to the end of Baxter's robotic arm to perform specific tasks.

But while a 3D printer has enabled Praxis to customize accessories for Baxter in real time and keep pace with new packaging requirements, King says, the IT team "still gets frustrated with" designing new 3D parts for its robots — a process that took months to master.

 

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