Home CompaniesB2B Can Human and Machine Employees Get Along? This Robot Rental Startup Says Yes

Can Human and Machine Employees Get Along? This Robot Rental Startup Says Yes

by Holly Beilin

“Most of our customers — this might sound a little surprising — they’re not doing it just because there’s cost savings. They’re doing it because they have unfilled positions, or they want to push the envelope and experiment with advanced technology.”

Co-founder and CEO Rob Goldiez, who formerly worked in a number of leadership and operations roles in the manufacturing industry, started Nashville-based Hirebotics out of a garage. Along with Matt Bush, the two self-funded the upfront capital needed to purchase the industrial robots they rent out in order to service their first clients.

The team’s process is a lengthy one. They travel to the client’s facility to take a look at the pain points — what jobs are unfilled, where are the tasks too dangerous or dirty for humans, where can a robot improve efficiency? They not only place the robots in the facility, but provide factory managers with an accompanying app to track productivity data so they know how hard their robot employees are working.

The machines work hard too — Goldiez says they aim to hire out a robot to work two normal human shifts a week, about 80 hours. But one of the most important things that Goldiez says they do during the process is make sure the human employees are comfortable with their new colleagues. They suggest employees name each robot and use them to take on tasks that no human should have to do.

Now, after a $2.4 million funding round which included notable investor and entrepreneur of Shark Tank fame Mark Cuban, the team is hiring and expanding their client roster across the country. Here, Goldiez gives us the full story of the first “robotics as a service” company, his view on the future of automation, and how robots and humans can be professional colleagues.

What is your background and how did you get the idea for Hirebotics?

I’m a electrical engineer. I started my career at IBM, moved into business and management roles, and then did an MBA at Duke. After I left the high-tech world, I moved into manufacturing roles and operations; most recently I was general manager of a Berkshire Hathaway family company where we made motors and commodity-type products.

I saw a common theme over and over that we were trying to solve at different businesses, which is that small to mid-sized companies don’t do automation. It’s really hard. It takes money, it takes know how. Where do you start? How do you do it? How do you support it? When I was at the Berkshire business, I decided to invest in and put in some robots to help automate the boring, dull tasks.

In 2015 I was on vacation with my family and had this idea come to me — you have the Uber and Airbnb model, this whole rental economy, everything getting cloud connected, while automation is really hard. So I thought, why can’t you hire a robot like you do a person? You don’t own your employees, you rent them and pay them by the hour. That’s how I came up with what became Hirebotics.

How does the rental model work?

We don’t just rent robots. We tell customers: we charge by the hour, we bill by the second. We get paid to make our customers productive, so we get paid only when our customers are productive and we bill them by the second of productivity.

Our customers are big users of the mobile app as well, so that’s where they’ll see real time productivity data, quota data, all in a mobile app. We’re empowering plant managers and others with this full industrial IoT that most people are just reading about. We’re making that available to our customers.

What are some of the industries that you’ve seen been most popular, and some of your major clients?

The one that stands out is automotive industry. But it ranges.

One thing that has been fairly surprising to us is we really started the business to help small and mid-sized companies, but we’re signing up large companies as well, like Dana Corporation — they’re a public Fortune 500 company — Parker-Hannifin, Toyota.

Have you done any research on the time or monetary savings the robots provide these companies?

They’re not losing money by putting in robots, but the primary driver is not usually money. The very vast majority of the time we’re getting invited in by companies that have a problem where they can’t hire people — they aren’t there or they don’t want to work in a manufacturing environment. They don’t want to do boring and dull and repetitive work.

So these business owners or operational leaders are asking: how can you help us? They invite us into their factories and say, find any application that you can do here. So we’ll walk around and say we can do that one, we can help this here, and we try to understand where their priorities are.

You’ve recently landed a $2.4M funding round which included a very notable investor. How did that come about?

In 2017 we’ve been fortunate to get some good press, not because we’re doing any PR work, but because we have a very different business model and are attacking this market very differently than anyone else. Recently we got a front page story on The Washington Post about one of our customers. The writer was with us for ten days in Wisconsin while we put in the robots, watching us and talking to the client and taking pictures. We didn’t know what that story was going to do for business, but we knew that it was going to generate a lot of interest from potential customers. And so we decided that we needed to go raise some outside capital.

I’m fortunate to have a very close friend that is in the financial industry. He helped pull together some folks that were interested in investing in this business. Shortly after the story ran in the Post, we were contacted by Mark Cuban. He wasn’t part of the original group but he wanted to participate. We made room for him and increased the round so that he could participate.

Does Cuban now serve as an adviser?

Oh yeah. He doesn’t get in the way by any stretch of the imagination, but he likes to know what’s going on. He offers his input and advice on things that are going on in the business.

What do you think is the future of automation?

There’s a lot of work going on with vision, doing things differently with vision from what’s happening now.

There’s a lot of people working on more complex solutions, including some that take advantage of the cloud within the factory. Then the other thing is mobility. Our robots are fixed in one position, but moving robots, moving equipment or moving through a warehouse.

You mentioned that the robots are filling jobs that nobody else would take, but a lot of people continue to think that automation is going to replace jobs. What do you usually tell those people?

We hear that a lot when initially we go to deploy the robots. But then, when they realize that they’re not losing a job, the people on the floor are generally asking: when can you put a robot over here to do this task? They see it as a tool, which is what it is.

Automation isn’t new. Robots aren’t the first generation of automation — there’s been automation for decades. A power drill is a form of automation, CNC machines are a form of automation. Multi-Axis robots are just another evolution of automation in factories.

In most of the applications we’re deploying, it’s human and robots collaborating together. In all of the situations where we’re deploying a robot, we have our customers name the robots and personify them. We don’t choose what a robot is going to be named, the customer does, and they refer to that robot by that name.

What has been your experience building your company in the southeast?

Our customers are manufacturers — they make things. We feel like we’re in the right spot for that if you look at where robots or manufacturing are in the U.S. Nashville is very central to the Midwest and to the southeast. There’s a lot of manufacturers, there’s a lot of robotics happening in this area.

What’s next for you in 2018?

We have two new employees starting with us of January, we’re continuing to interview and hire. We have a tremendous backlog of customers that have signed for robots — we’re in the takeoff point for our business. We’re continue to accelerate how fast we can deploy robots and the geography in which we are putting robots.

For the first year and a half, up until this past summer around the time we raised the capital, it was just myself and Matt running around doing all of it. Since raising capital, we’re now replicating what we’re doing across new employees so that we can take on a lot of work. We’re in that scaling out and scaling up phase of what we’re doing, so 2018 is going to be pretty exciting for us.

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