San Francisco — A San Francisco-based company says it has developed a robotic machine operator available for rent that can be dropped easily into production lines without requiring additional extensive programming.
Rapid Robotics Inc. received $5.5 million in seed funding from investors with Greycroft and Bee Partners for its rent-a-robot business, which costs manufacturers $25,000 a year.
The company says it developed a robotic machine operator that understands how to perform common tasks, such as injection molding, pad printing and heat stamping, without programming or systems integration.
Called the Rapid Machine Operator, the pretrained robot combines proprietary machine vision and artificial intelligence with robotic hardware to handle most machine operator jobs "out of the box" as opposed to traditional robotics solutions, which need to be programmed by specialized systems integrators.
The need to develop specialized programming makes automation too expensive for most contract manufacturers, who then can't scale their operations or bid competitively and may see work go to facilities overseas, according to Rapid Robotics.
The company's website says manufacturers that rent a robotic system for $25,000 a year save 75 percent on direct and indirect labor costs.
Tammy Barras, president of Westec Plastics Corp. in Livermore, Calif., is an early adopter of hiring robots.
"We looked at automating machine operator tasks before, but as a custom injection molder, the costs were prohibitive," Barras said in a news release. "Rapid's solution was the first we'd seen that just worked, at a price that made sense for our business. We were pleased with how responsive the Rapid team is and were quickly able to start seeing value."
Westec's website says the company is investing in robots not to replace employees but to work alongside them to increase productivity for low-medium volume applications, which involve frequent set-ups and line changeovers, as well as high-volume dedicated production applications.
Rapid Robotics says customers are saving an average of $110,000 per year for each robotic machine operator they install, achieving a return on their investments in as little as three months. Also, employees who previously operated only one machine at a time can now manage numerous Rapid Machine Operators with a simple touchscreen interface that requires no robotics expertise.
In addition, the company says its Rapid Machine Operator becomes smarter as it works, sharing its experience through the cloud with the rest of the Rapid Robotics fleet to become more skilled and valuable at no additional expense.
This boost in productivity from the Rapid Machine Operator allows manufacturers to take on more projects, outbid foreign competitors and scale their business as they redeploy human operators to more complex and profitable jobs.
"Rapid Robotics has developed an ingenious solution to a problem with massive economic consequences," Michael Berolzheimer, Bee Partners founder and managing partner, said in the release. "Within this decade, Rapid's robotic machine operators will bring the benefits of automation to thousands of U.S. businesses and spark an unprecedented resurgence in onshore manufacturing."
Currently, billions of dollars of revenue are flowing offshore due to what Rapid Robotics CEO Jordan Kretchmer calls "the automation gap" for U.S. contract manufacturers.
"The need to automate simple tasks is incredibly high, but the ability to do so has been out of reach for a vast majority of manufacturers. The Rapid Machine Operator is the first robotic solution to close that gap, making U.S. manufacturers more competitive and supply chains more resilient," Kretchmer said in the release.
Kretchmer cofounded Rapid Robotics with Ruddick Lawrence. He previously founded Livefyre, an engagement platform acquired by Adobe in 2016. Lawrence previously led the software group for robotics for the da Vinci robot program of Intuitive Surgical, which is the most-used surgical robot in the world.