Tucked away in a small converted warehouse in London is the office of Automata, a British start-up working on a machine it thinks might shake up the industrial robotics space.
The anecdote is part of a wider theme within the company, its founders say. Eva wasn’t designed to replace workers — a source of worry for many economists — but to fulfill some of the simpler tasks that could easily be done instead by a machine.
With robots being able to automate processes from moving around stock in warehouses to serving up coffee, experts are worried companies could take the route of laying off workers in droves to put robots in their place as a means of cutting costs.
Founders Chandra and ElSayed don’t subscribe to that philosophy. They say that businesses can’t grow by firing workers; rather, they should automate certain menial tasks so workers can make better use of their time. It’s about replacing “tasks, not jobs,” ElSayed says.
Both of Automata’s founders were originally architects working for Zaha Hadid Architects, the company created by renowned Iraqi-British draftswoman Zaha Hadid.
Hadid, who died in 2016, designed the aquatics center for the London 2012 Olympics and the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan.
“If we can make buildings, how hard can robots be?” was the way the two thought about the project around the time they established their business in 2015, Chandra said.
But it wasn’t long before they ran into some difficulty. The gearbox — the set of gears more commonly associated with cars — was the company’s “first major technological challenge,” ElSayed said.
“There were moments where the survival of the company hinged on a test running on the gearbox,” he said, adding that many new companies operating in the robotics space are often “held hostage” to the mechanism.
He explained further that the device is made predominantly by two companies, and that his start-up didn’t want to become a “slave to their price point.” Automata’s gearing system was made “mostly from scratch” and costs less to make than to buy from another supplier, he added.
The firm touts its easy-to-use software, called Choreograph, as another selling point that differentiates Eva from other major industrial competitors.
Automata’s software lets a user program the mechanical arm to perform certain actions. Someone can, for instance, manually move it into different positions, logging each checkpoint with the press of a button, and then play out the chain of movements on a loop.
“We’re not inventing anything here, we’re just bringing consumer-level simplicity into industrial hardware,” Chandra said, while demonstrating the software.
“What we’re doing is making automation accessible by making robots that can be set up within a few minutes and cost a fraction of the other industrial robots,” he added.
And industrial robotics is no small industry. According to the International Federation of Robotics, 387,000 robots were shipped globally in 2017 — up 30 percent from the previous year — with sales hitting a record $ 16.2 billion.