Innovation

How a two-man startup in Nashville is running the world's first robot rental company

Automation can save businesses lots of money, but smaller companies often need guidance integrating robots into their production. Here's how a startup helps them by renting robots as temp workers.

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A Universal Robot is doing assembly work with hand tools (drills, soldering iron).

Image: Hirebotics

Out of a small garage in Nashville, TN, Matt Bush and Rob Goldiez have introduced a spin into how companies can start automating: They're renting out robots for hire.

Hirebotics, a startup that launched in early 2016, currently has a handful of robots out for hire. It's been called the "world's first" robot rental service. Usually, Goldiez said, their clients will start out with one robot, to see how it goes.

So how does it work? When a company decides to rent a robot, Hirebotics will buy one from Universal Robots, a Danish company that sells industrial, collaborative robots (or co-bots). They're similar to a Baxter robot from Rethink Robotics, but they're better suited for industrial environments because of their speed and precision.

"We make industrial automation easy," said Goldiez. "We hire robots out like employees."

Goldiez, an engineer, has been in manufacturing for about a decade. Most recently, he was involved with a company that used several Universal Robots. "I recognized throughout my career that it's just hard," he said. "Some small-to-midsize enterprises don't have access to capital and others don't have a vision on what can be automated, how to do it, how to maintain it, and so on."

"I saw the intersection of collaborative robots and cloud technologies and thought, 'There's got to be a way to make this easier for manufacturing companies to put it all together.'"

Hirebotics doesn't rent out just by the hour—they do "full turnkey," Goldiez said. "The customer doesn't have to know anything about robotics, and doesn't have to put up a bunch of money." Hirebotics deploys the robots, performs maintenance, and makes it easy for businesses who don't know how to operate the machines, he said.

A big component of the service, Goldiez said, is the data. "We give our customers data back in their hands," he said. Businesses can use a mobile app to track productivity, and get push notifications such as alerts when the robot needs more parts, or more work.

SEE: How robots are filling worker shortages, replacing 'bad' jobs, and making work more rewarding (ZDNet)

Goldiez thinks collaborative robots are perfect for this service because of their proven safety working alongside people.

"When we go deploy a solution, we're generally doing it very rapidly, and it makes everything we need to think about from a safety standpoint far easier with a collaborative robot," Goldiez said. "We get a nice blend of safety, but they still perform like a traditional industrial robot."

Goldiez said that he's mostly seen interest from either single or multi-plant companies—not typically the very large enterprises—earning between $50 and $200 million in revenue. The clients rent robots for a wide variety of jobs—usually, very monotonous tasks like loading machines or doing assembly work.

Many of the customers are new to using robots. Goldiez said he thinks it is comparable to renting equipment like a forklift. "If the company doesn't have to deal with the project and the hassle and the installation and deployment of a robot, they can use that money to go buy another machine or whatever they need to increase production," he said.

"We don't expect them to know anything about robots," he said. "We do all the programming of the robot, designing the end effector. When you buy an industrial robot it doesn't have a hand, so we design what type of gripper or end effector it's going to have. Then we're responsible for keeping that robot running."

It's not like a leasing service, where Hirebotics gives businesses a route to purchasing. Instead, Goldiez calls it "robotics-as-a-service." The company offers ongoing support and enhancements, which he said you don't get if you just purchase a robot outright.

Like human employees, Hirebotics aims to hire out workers long-term. It's a significant upfront cost, which Hirebotics takes on. And the charge to the client varies, depending on the complexity of the task, but is comparable to human labor, targeted around $15 per hour—which applies only to "productive" hours the robot is working, with the expectation is that the robot will work about 80 hours a week, double a human shift.

SEE: Robots for hire: this time, as restaurant workers (ZDNet)

"It's like a human worker turning in a time-card," Goldiez said. "For a given week, if the robot worked 83 hours, 14 minutes and 17 seconds, that's what we would bill for."

But the company does offer an "out" if the customer isn't satisfied. "Just like a human, if we're not performing the duties that you asked us to perform, or the nature of your work changes such that you don't need the work anymore we can be fired with 30 days notice. We've really tried to mirror what we do like a human," Goldiez said.

The fact that there's no competition, Goldiez said, is "a double-edged sword. Some competition would help validate the market," he said, since many businesses assume they need to own a robot.

But he said he thinks that in the early days of software-as-a-service, businesses felt the same way. "A lot of people talk about IoT and connected products and industrial internet, and it's at its very early stages. We give that to small-to-midsize companies immediately. We're not just talking it, we're doing it," said Goldiez.

"Literally, our customers on their iPhone get push notifications and charts and digitalization of what their robots are doing," he said. "That's pretty powerful."

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About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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