Now You Can Rent a Robot Worker—for Less Than Paying a Human | WIRED


image+++lead-in-textnn[Polar Manufacturing]( has been making ​metal ​hinges, locks, and brackets ​in south Chicago for more than 100 years.Some of the company’s metal presses—hulking great machines that loom over a worker—date from the 1950s.Last year, to meet rising demand amid a shortage of workers, Polar hired its first [robot]( employee.nn+++nnThe robot arm performs a simple, repetitive job: lifting a piece of metal into a press, which then bends the metal into a new shape.And like a person, the robot worker gets paid for the hours it works.nn​Jose Figueroa​, who manages Polar’s production line, says the robot, which is leased from a company called [Formic](, costs the equivalent of $8 per hour, compared with a minimum wage of $15 per hour for a human employee.

Deploying the robot allowed a human worker to do different work, increasing output, Figueroa says.nn”Smaller companies sometimes suffer because they can’t spend the capital to invest in new technology,” Figueroa says.“We’re just struggling to get by with the minimum wage increase.”nnThe fact that Polar didn’t need to pay $100,000 upfront to buy the robot, and then spend more money to get it programmed, was crucial.Figueroa says that he’d like to see 25 robots on the line within five years.He doesn’t envisage replacing any of the company’s 70 employees, but says Polar may not need to hire new workers.nnFormic buys standard robot arms, and leases them along with its own software.

They’re among a small but growing number of robots finding their way into workplaces on a pay-as-you-go basis.nnThe pandemic has led to [shortages of workers]( across numerous industries, but many smaller firms are reluctant to write big checks for automation.nn+++pullquotenn“Cost declines are great for the diffusion of a technology.” nnAndrew McAfee, principle research scientist, MIT nn+++nn“Anything that can help reduce labor count or the need for labor is obviously a plus at this particular time,” says Steve Chmura, chief operating officer at [Georgia Nut](, a confectionery company in Skokie, Illinois, that has been struggling to find employees and also rents robots from Formic.nnThe robot-as-employee approach could help automation spread into smaller businesses more rapidly by changing the economics.Companies such as Formic see an opportunity to build large businesses by serving many small firms.Many are mining the data they collect to help refine their products and improve customers’ operations.nn[Shahan Farshchi](, an investor in Formic, likens the state of robotics today to computing before personal computers took off, when only rich companies could afford to invest in massive computer systems that required considerable expertise to program and maintain.Personal computing was enabled by companies including Intel and Microsoft that made the technology cheap and easy to use.“We’re entering that same time now with robots,” Farshchi says.nnRobots have been taking on new jobs in recent years as the technology becomes more capable as well as easier and cheaper to deploy.Some hospitals use robots to deliver supplies and some offices employ robotic security guards.The companies behind these robots often provide them on a rental basis.nnJeff Burnstein, president of the [Association for Advancing Automation](, an industry body, says rising demand for automation among smaller companies is driving interest in robotics as a service.The approach has seen particular traction among warehouse fulfillment firms, Burnstein says.nnIt might eventually become normal to pay robots to do all sorts of jobs, Burnstein says, pointing to [RoboTire](, a startup developing a robot capable of switching the tires on a car.

“As more and more companies automate in different industries, you’re seeing more receptivity to robotics as a service,” he says.nn+++inset-leftnn+++sidebarnn#### [Keep Reading]([![#image: /photos/605bd81c204aaa18f9755486]]( n Search our [artificial intelligence database]( and discover stories by sector, tech, company, and more.n+++nn+++nnThe [International Federation of Robotics](, an organization that tracks robot trends globally, [projected in October]( that the number of robots sold last year would grow 13 percent.[One market analysis]( from 2018 projected the number of industrial robots that are leased or that rely on subscription software will grow from 4,442 units in 2016 to 1.3 million in 2026.nn“Cost declines are great for the diffusion of a technology,” says [Andrew McAfee](, a principle research scientist at MIT who studies the economic implications of automation.nnMcAfee says robots themselves have become cheaper and more user friendly in recent years thanks to the falling cost of sensors and other components, a trend that he expects will continue.“They are the peace dividend of the smartphone wars,” he says.nnDustin Pederson, CFO of [Locus Robotics](, a company that leases robots for use in warehouses, says his company’s revenue has grown sixfold over the past year amid rising demand for ecommerce and a shortage of workers.“To be able to step in with a subscription model makes automation a lot friendlier,” Pederson says.

“And we are still early on in the overall adoption of robotics in the warehousing industry.”nnIt’s unclear—even to economists—what impact the growing use of robots will have on the supply of jobs.

Research from Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo, economists at MIT and Boston University, respectively, suggests that the adoption of robots from 1990 to 2020 [resulted in fewer jobs and lower wages overall]( one study of robot adoption in Japanese nursing homes, from January 2021, found that the technology [helped create more jobs]( by allowing for more flexibility in working practices.And another study, from 2019, also found that robot adoption among Canadian businesses had [often affected managers more than workers]( by changing business processes.nn[Lynn Wu](, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and a coauthor on the 2019 study, says she expects robots paid by the hour to become more common.But she notes that in contrast to many information technologies, few businesses know how to use robots.

“It’s going to take longer than people think,” she says.nnFor now, most robots found in industrial settings are relatively dumb, following precise movements repetitively.[Robots are gradually becoming smarter thanks to use of artificial intelligence](, but it remains very challenging for machines to respond to complex environments or uncertainty.Some researchers believe that adding AI to robots [will prompt companies to reorganize]( in ways that have a bigger impact on jobs.nnSaman Farid, CEO of Formic, says the company hopes to position itself to be able to offer more capable robots to all sorts of companies in the future.“Robots are going to be able to do a lot more tasks over the next 5 to 10 years,” Farid says.“As machine learning gets better, and you get to a higher level of reliability, then we’ll start implementing those.”nn***n### More Great WIRED Storiesn- 📩 The latest on tech, science, and more: [Get our newsletters](\!n- The [metaverse-crashing life of Kai Lenny]( [Indie city-building games]( reckon with climate changen- The [worst hacks of 2021](, from ransomware to data breachesn- Here’s what [working in VR]( is actually liken- How do you practice [responsible astrology?]( 👁️ Explore AI like never before with [our new database]( ✨ Optimize your home life with our Gear team’s best picks, from [robot vacuums]( to [affordable mattresses]( to [smart speakers](

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