For a robotics visionary, Debbie Theobald is remarkably grounded. Though the CEO and Co-founder of Vecna Technologies sees the robotics industry at an inflection point where “a lot of great things are coming together,” she says the more widespread adoption of robots will stem from technologists answering a classic business question: “What problem does it solve?”
Vecna initially was focused on the problem of how to use information technology to improve the healthcare industry. Theobald and her husband Daniel, an MIT mechanical engineer, saw the immense promise of the internet and started Vecna in 1999 with health IT as their focus.
But the two entrepreneurs knew they wanted to do work in the automation field. Debbie Theobald got her introduction to robotics through her research at MIT in the aerospace field and Daniel had also done work on space robotics. Soon, they were using revenue from the IT part of the business to begin investing in robotics R&D. Work on military applications led to commercial robotics development. From the lofty reaches of space, she quips, Vecna’s work has “progressed toward terrestrial robotics.”
Along with its IT solutions for healthcare, Vecna offers a variety of robots for hospital tasks from the pharmacy to the laundry. More recently, the company has branched out to another challenge: how to help distributors and warehouse operators meet a booming demand for their services while keeping prices low. Theobald said picking orders in huge warehouses is demanding work and added that many warehouses are being built in areas where labor is not plentiful. These challenges are calling not just for more warehouses but for more fundamental changes in how they are structured.
Warehouse operators, says Theobald, “aren’t settling for wire guided or painted-stripe-on-the-floor types of vehicles anymore. They want a more free form interaction. They don't want tightly constructed routes where the robots go around and around. They want to be very dynamic and be able to change as fast as the inventory is changing. That really drives the market and the kinds of products that you will see.”
This less static warehouse environment means robots need to be “set free,” says Theobald. Vecna offers robots with payloads from 5 to 2,000 kilograms that can operate autonomously; not simply stopping if a package falls into their path, for example, but then moving around the obstacle. Vecna also offers an “autonomy kit” that allows distributors and fulfillment centers to outfit material handling vehicles with an electronics package of sensors and processers so that their existing equipment can operate in this fashion.
To coordinate the operation of many robots in a facility, Vecna has a fleet manager program that coordinates where they work and on what tasks so that they perform their work in the most efficient manner. The fleet manager provides work orders through a customer’s WMS/MES system.
Vecna also has a simulation tool that it can use to map out the material handling needs of a facility and determine how customers can make better use of their truck fleets.
“For a big customer of ours, we just mapped out their entire warehouse process and were able to tell them what were the best ways to use robots, on what tasks and with what frequency and how they should be interacting with humans,” explains Theobald. “That was a full simulation software suite that we did for them. I think you will see more and more of this. Before people take action, they want to see the simulation of that automation.”
Free moving forklifts and trucks aren’t the only ways that Vecna is developing robots that interact with people. Last year, the company acquired VGo, a manufacturer of robots which combine mobility with audio and video capabilities so that people can provide a “telepresence” in remote locations. VGo, says Theobald, is moving toward “an avatar experience, where you will feel an immersive experience when you are not in the place.”
Audi is using VGo to connect its factory specialists with service technicians. The specialist can receive images and data, and help the mechanic assess a difficult problem. “These specialist resources that need to be distributed more broadly can use this tool to be in many places almost at the same time or in close serial proximity,” notes Theobald.
VGo can be thought of as a “gateway robot,” Theobald posits, in that it presents robotics technology not as something forbidding but rather as something accessible that helps to make people increasingly comfortable with this technology.
Hype and Disillusionment
Theobald thinks the industry is on the verge of much more rapid growth as technologies improve.
“Technical advancements have mostly come in the areas of low-cost computing and sensing. Batteries and actuators have seen some advancement, but nothing nearly as significant. That said, the real lynchpin is industry acceptance to start heavily investing in this kind of automation,” she says.
Theobald isn’t the only one foreseeing a dramatic rise in the use of robots. Boston Consulting Group recently forecast that robot installations would increase 10% annually over the next decade.
“Annual shipments of robots will leap from around 200,000 units in 2014 to more than 500,000 by 2025 according to our baseline projection, and to more than 700,000 in a more aggressive scenario,” BCG stated. “Even so, we project that, by 2025, those installations will represent only about one-quarter of all manufacturing tasks and far less than that amount in other industries and major manufacturing economies. The growth potential over the long term, therefore, should remain immense.”
While the future for robotics appears bright, the journey won’t be without its bumps. In recent months, companies such as Harvest robotics and Google acquisition Boston Dynamics have been put up for sale. Right now, says Theobald, the robotics industry is seeing a growing acceptance of a broader role for robots in both homes and businesses. But at the same time, she notes, “We have companies struggling to make a business out of these things, [to decide] what platforms to invest in, what the reliability factor is on these things.”
For decades, robots have been the most glamorous symbols of automation. Science fiction has represented robots as both the ultimate servants and the greatest threats to humans. That attention to the impact of robots has ratcheted up in recent months as Western nations cope with persistent unemployment and a diminishing role for manual labor. Theobald notes that the hype and attention from countless news stories has come at a price.
“They may be outstripping what we can actually deliver as robotics companies,” she says, causing disillusionment among some members of the industry. The solution for that, she says, is a solid ground game where the industry develops “reliable applications and business use cases.”
At this stage, says Theobald, the robotics industry is being held back less by technology than by economics.
“We have solved all of the most common navigation and manipulation challenges; now, it is really about adoption so that prices can come down,” she explains. “The industry is currently in a pickle where robot prices could be 2-5 times lower than what they are currently if volumes were high enough. However, volumes do not get high enough until prices come down.”
Theobald says that prices are coming down, but gradually.
“This process should pick up substantial speed over the next few years as interest in robotics from large corporations is at an all-time high,” she observes. “This interest could mean that we will start seeing more large purchases and increasing volumes, thus allowing lower costs across the board.”
Theobald makes no bones about the impact of robots in society – they will take jobs that people once performed. She says this is a continuation of the industrial revolution, where manual tasks are replaced by machines.
“You think now about what a machine does better than a human,” Theobald says. “That line is shifting over and over and closer toward what humans do. It is inevitable that machines will get better at doing some of these repetitive tasks.”
With more widespread use of robots, says Theobald, what companies and society are facing is a “huge change management issue.” And she states, “We do need to have a plan for how that shift is going to happen.”
Making a Better World
While Vecna is a company focused on information and robotics technologies, the company was created with a strong belief that it exists to serve people.
“We always wanted to do good in the world. Our motto is ‘Better technology, better world,’” notes Theobald. “The products that we put out there are really trying to help move along the world that we want to see.” To promote this philosophy, Vecna encourages its 160 employees to give 10% of their paid working time to community service efforts.
Theobald says social responsibility belongs to organizations, not just to individuals. In 2009, she established Vecna Cares, a charitable trust that provides “technology and training to support and strengthen health systems in underserved areas for better health outcomes.”
As part of its work, Theobald traveled to Liberia in 2014 in response to the ebola crisis. She brought both a portable patient information management server and a VGo robot.
“It opened my eyes to how we can use really advanced technologies on the ground that make a huge impact and improve [the robot’s] persona,” she recalls.
Using the robot’s telepresence capabilities in isolation areas allowed family members to have more contact with ebola patients, she explains, as well as providing better access for doctors and more immediate monitoring of patients by nurses.
For Theobald, the trip to Liberia was an enlightening lesson in the use of robotics. Those “grueling and difficult circumstances” provided her team with ideas for better, more reliable products, she says.