Episode 18

Democratizing Access to Robotics

with Benjamin Gibbs

Benjamin Gibbs

Co-Founder & CEO, READY Robotics

In this episode, Tee Ganbold sits down with Benjamin Gibbs, Co-Founder and CEO of READY Robotics to talk about making robotics user-friendly to spark the future of industrial automation.

Topics in this conversation include:

  • How Ben came to start READY Robotics (1:39)
  • What READY is about (3:44)
  • How READY technology has been adopted (5:20)
  • How many languages are needed outside of READY (9:01)
  • How READY is re-skilling to build and learn robotics (10:14)
  • READY became successful (12:00)
  • READY geographic focus (12:46)
  • How READY wants to grow (13:25)
  • How READY has been affected by COVID (14:26)
  • How READY is partnering with those whose jobs they are automating (16:49)
  • What Ben is excited about in the coming future (18:27)

 

Automating The Chain bridges the learning gap between business executives and their technical counterparts. In each episode, we learn from CTOs and experts in industrial automation as they explain their technology in an accessible way. For more information, or to subscribe, please visit https://www.automatingthechain.com/.

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Transcription

Tee Ganbold 0:09
Welcome to Automating The Chain, the weekly podcast and webinar specifically engineered to support and educate executives as they explore the potential of industrial automation. Each week we sit down with an executive leader or their technical counterpart of an international organization to discuss how they plan to leverage industrial automation to advance their business, who also have startups focused on automating the supply chain, explain the technology in an accessible way. Experts in the field will color in historical and current case studies. Without further ado, let’s get into the show.

Hi, Ben! Thank you so much for joining Automating The Chain. Where are you dialing in from?

Benjamin Gibbs 1:00
Thanks, Tee Ganbold. It’s great to be on here. I’m dialing in from our headquarters in Columbus, Ohio.

Tee Ganbold 1:04
Thank you. Let me briefly introduce you to give a bit of context. You’re the founding CEO of READY Robotics. Your company’s been up and running for the last five years. You have been one of the leading pioneers in this industry. Prior to this, you were commercializing technology companies at John Hopkins Technology Ventures for over 10 years. What made you start READY? What possessed you to go into the industrial robotics space?

Benjamin Gibbs 1:39
While working at Johns Hopkins, I was exposed to some of the best and most brilliant minds in the world working on a wide variety of technology areas. It was actually where I met my co-founder Kel Guerin (who’s the chief innovation officer of our company) while he was doing his Ph.D. in robotics. John Hopkins has a leading robotics program and he had come there to study how to make it easier to use surgical robots. But one day, there had been a chance phone call where a local steel factory called the front desk of Johns Hopkins and said, “Hey, we bought a bunch of robots at a fire sale recently. We don’t know anything about these robots. It turns out they’re very complicated. Can you send someone that might be able to help us?” Kel got a chance to see them firsthand and it really was a lightbulb moment where he saw how difficult it was to program that particular brand of robots. He came to talk to me in my capacity at Johns Hopkins technology ventures and we sat down and did a broader analysis of the space and found that there was a tremendous amount of fragmentation here where every OEM had their own programming language. They were all very difficult to use and we saw this as a strong opportunity to really revolutionize the robotics industry in a space that most people were not paying attention to. I had been there for many years, he and I got along extremely well, and he was looking for a partner there so we put together a deck, went out there and pitched some VCs, raised our initial round of funding, and the rest is history.

Tee Ganbold 3:11
That’s incredible. It sounds like it was love at first sight, his mind and the commercial mind that you bring to the table. Let’s go back to READY Robotics and the vision, the mission, what problem you’re solving. It sounds like fragmentation was the main problem, but where are you looking to go with your technology? Can you explain your technology in greater depth? I know it’s behind you, so you can also show and tell if you like.

Benjamin Gibbs 3:45
Ultimately, our technology is about democratizing access to robotics. There’s a big fragmentation problem, but they’re just very difficult today to use for the average person. My co-founder has a Ph.D. in robotics. I do not. I have a BA in economics. It should be easy enough for me or anyone to be able to use these types of systems, much in the same way that computers are easy for anyone to use and they’ve become tremendous tools of productivity because of that. Imagine how difficult it would be for people like yourself and myself to use computers if we had to write 1,000s of lines of code every time we wanted to send an email or use a word processor. Unfortunately, that’s where we’re at today with robot arms. There’s just a tremendous amount of complexity that, frankly, requires an advanced degree in many instances to deal with effectively. What we’ve done with our software is not only work towards solving that fragmentation problem, but also created a no-code programming environment on top of that so that anyone can effectively automate a wide variety of tasks with relative ease.

Tee Ganbold 5:09
Can you just give me an example of some of your customers and why they started adopting this? How easy was it to adopt this technology?

Benjamin Gibbs 5:20
Our customers span the gamut from small machine shops all the way up to fortune 500 companies like Stanley Black & Decker. Stanley Black & Decker has a really good illustrative example of how easy our software is. In one of the facilities that we helped automate tasks in, the operator for these lanes that we automated had no prior experience with robotics. Over the course of a day and a half, they were trained on how to use our system and they became a power user very quickly. What that enabled them to do in this hand ax environment, was actually reprogram that robot themselves several dozen times for several different skews, which dramatically reduced work in progress inventory, saved a bunch of money for the company in overhead over time, and gave that operator a career boost because now he could say he was a robot, programmer and operator, which is true.

Tee Ganbold 6:20
So you literally empower someone to have the skills that someone prior to READY Robotics literally needed a Ph.D.? Is that my understanding?

Benjamin Gibbs 6:33
Yes. You don’t literally need a Ph.D., but it’s a ton of time and effort to get up to speed on these things. A traditional way of growing and learning how to move a robot arm around,—I just need to move it, not pick up anything, not do anything with it—you’re looking at 120 to 160 hours of training time because of the complexity that exists today. With our software, as I said, this guy at the end of a shift was able to use this system effectively. This is also an important thing because a lot of the operators in these facilities are concerned that automation is going to replace them. They’re told, “Hey, you can go upscale,” and then they’re handed this complicated-looking teach pendant, but it’s not that easy. With our software, they can actually see themselves learning how to use this stuff effectively. These are smart individuals, we’re just handing them something that is too complicated. By providing them something that is much more intuitive, they can actually take those decades of know-how that they have locked up in their head and use it to make those robots more effective tools for automation, which in turn actually helps those companies scale up. In fact, many companies that end up deploying robot automation end up hiring more humans because they become more profitable, they can grow faster. That also speaks to one of the other major problems in the manufacturing industry, which is here in the US in particular: there are 500,000 unfilled manufacturing jobs today, and that’s a number that’s prospected to balloon to 2.2 million over the next decade, which is primarily driven by demographics. The baby boomers are retiring. Younger generations are told that manufacturing is dirty, dull, and dangerous. “You shouldn’t go into it. You should get a nice office job. Go get a college degree.” Because of that, we have this massive shortfall in labor at a time that—because of COVID-19 and other external factors—we desperately need to be scaling up a manufacturer.

Tee Ganbold 8:29
When I read some of your literature, one of the major points is that it solves the problem of so many different languages. Your end customer is probably sitting there thinking, “Before READY I had to know how many different languages?” Can you state for the technical minds out there—because this is transcripted and some people will look at the actual data—how many languages did you have to know before you essentially implemented READY Robotics?

Benjamin Gibbs 9:02
I had been in some factories where they had robot arms from four different OEMs in the same facility, which means that they had to have people on staff that could program in four different languages, or they have to rely on scarce and expensive systems integrators that could handle one or more of those languages. There are in fact, dozens of robot programming languages today and that fragmentation just makes it very difficult for factories and individuals to pick the right robot arm for the job. There are tremendous switching costs there that our platform is helping to solve.

Tee Ganbold 9:40
I can clearly see the business benefits. You have some of the largest companies leading in automation in the industry calling and asking for your software. Clearly, you’re doing the right thing, but tell us what are you doing from a social impact perspective? What are you doing to make sure that jobs are being— Are you retraining? Are you re-skilling? I saw you have an academy. Can you tell us exactly what you’re doing and why you’re doing it?

Benjamin Gibbs 10:15
Rescaling and upskilling is a tremendously important topic and one that’s very near and dear to our heart. Part of the reason we launched READY Academy was to take all of these materials that we’ve been building over the last several years and turn them into a formal pathway where people can go through those course materials and come out the other side knowing how to use robots as effective tools and use our software to automate a variety of tasks. We actually prototyped that over the summer with an institution called eKAMI where we took a cohort of 14 former coal miners that were already working to rescale themselves as machinists since the coal mine had shut down, and we added on this module where they also learned how to program robots effectively. They became tremendously employable because they can go into a factory and say, “I can program your machine tools to produce parts, and I can program robots to tend those machine tools.” Everyone wins.

Tee Ganbold 11:22
That is probably the most telling part of your company culture, to be retraining so many people, so thank you for that. Let’s go back and let’s go higher now to the commercials. Since your expertise is really how to take businesses from zero to one and make sure that is actually profitable and sustainable, what sort of market are you in right now? What sort of industries? Why did you pick them? Very briefly, that would be fascinating for the entrepreneurs out there who are looking to learn from you.

Benjamin Gibbs 12:01
We ultimately made a very flexible platform, but it’s important when you have a very flexible platform to hone in on repeatable use cases. Within the manufacturing industry, we’ve done a lot around material handling and machine tending things like lathes, mills, stamping presses, and the like. A lot of metal forming applications. That’s where we really got started but, because it’s such a broad platform, we’ve moved into other applications like dispensing, palletizing, and even some light assembly, all using our new programming interface.

Tee Ganbold 12:37
From a geographic perspective, are you primarily focused on North America? Or are you now looking at various other geographies in the world?

Benjamin Gibbs 12:47
To date, all of our customers have been in North America, but we have some exciting product announcements coming later this year that are going to be the beginning of our international expansion. I’m excited to share those when I’m able to in quarter two of this year because some really neat stuff coming down the pipeline.

Tee Ganbold 13:05
That’s fascinating. I’m a firm believer that if you ask something from the universe it will come to you so, in the areas of growth in your business right now, where are you looking to grow? What do you need from investors or business partners? Where is it that you want to keep expanding to get to your goal?

Benjamin Gibbs 13:24
For the type of large scale growth that we want, we need to leverage partnerships, so we are in a process of starting to sign up for systems integrators, machine builders, value-added resellers that see our software as a new tool for them to sell robots more effectively and quickly and really push growth across the board.

Tee Ganbold 13:48
From a product perspective, are you going to keep expanding or are you going to keep repeatedly selling the current products you have?

Benjamin Gibbs 13:57
We will certainly continue to sell the current product offerings but, as we scale up, there’s a new version of our core products for Geles coming out in Q2 of this year that I’m not going to go into all the particulars now. I’m really excited to share that with the world when it does become available.

Tee Ganbold 14:15
That’s so exciting. And COVID-19, we cannot leave the elephant out of the room. What has that meant for your customers? And what has it meant for your business?

Benjamin Gibbs 14:28
COVID-19 has obviously had a massive impact on the global economy. One of the things that it really highlighted is the fragility of a lot of our international supply chain. Overnight, it became very difficult for a lot of companies to get the basic products that they had become accustomed to being able to get anywhere in the world. What that really highlighted is a need for increased resiliency in these supply chains. What that means in practicality is the localization of production, which means onshore. To really do that effectively is you bring production back into economies with higher labor costs. The only way to maintain cost competitiveness is through automation. What we’re really starting to see is just a massive tidal wave in demand for robotics and automation that really started to pick up at the end of 2020, and I think 2021 is going to showcase tremendous growth. That’s good for a couple of reasons. It’s good not only for the resiliency of the existing supply chain but frankly, we don’t make enough stuff in the world. If you look globally at the number of people involved in manufacturing today, depending on the source you look at, it’s between 340 million and 400 million people, and that’s to make just enough stuff for less than 1% of the world to live the way that we do. There are massive emerging middle classes in China, India, other big economies. Imagine if we wanted to make 10 times as much stuff as we do today. That’s not that unreasonable of a goal, yet doing it the way we do it today means you’d have to have 3.4 billion people involved in manufacturing, which is impossible. The only way that we’ll get there is through productivity gains with things like robotic automation, and the only way to scale that up effectively is to make this more accessible, easier, more intuitive for people to deploy and manage on their own.

Tee Ganbold 16:30
From a partnership perspective, can you tell us a little bit about what is going to happen to all the vendors out there that were previously doing the work you’re doing but you’re automating? What is your message to them? Are you partnering with them? Are you giving them jobs? What’s going to happen?

Benjamin Gibbs 16:51
We do make integration robots and management deployment of them easier, but there’s always a role for systems integrators. Even with computers, where they have been made tremendously easier, you still have integrators coming in to help companies set up solutions where those companies don’t necessarily have the process know-how to set something up effectively, and that’s going to continue to be true in this space. There are always companies that want to hire someone else to help out with this. There are always companies that don’t have the time to implement some of this stuff and are willing to pay somebody else. Our platform actually helps make those system integrators more competitive because, like everyone else, they’ve had to wrestle with this fragmentation problem. Yes, there are massive systems integrators that can program in every robot language out there, but there are hundreds of smaller integrators, small businesses that are four, five, six people that barely have the capability to program one, maybe two of these robot programming languages, which means day in day out, they’re walking away from opportunities. Using our software, they no longer have to walk away from those opportunities because they can program all of these different robots the exact same way.

Tee Ganbold 18:05
That’s incredibly helpful. The one note I’d like to end with is what are you excited about for the global supply chain and the automation with a global supply chain in the next year, in the next five years, by 2030 even? What is your view and what are you excited about?

Benjamin Gibbs 18:27
I think that we are at the cusp of a new automation age that’s going to be driven primarily through robotics and, to a large extent, with robot arms. One of the things that a lot of people have been talking about is the falling cost of these arms. There are some reports out there from DCG and some others that talk about “we’re going to see a $5,000 robot arm by 2040.” Basically, in the next 20 years afterward, there’s going to be massive growth. I think those numbers are very conservative. I think that we’re actually going to see a sub $5,000 robot arm by 2025 at the latest, and here’s why: If you look at the IFR report, they tag the average selling price of a robot today at about $39,500. If you go out and you buy a lightweight industrial arm from some of the leading OEMs, you’re going to see that’s about the cost of it. But there are other OEMs that have been entering the space recently. For example, Epson has a low-cost arm that’s $14,000 that does the same thing as that $40,000 arm. There are companies coming out of China and even one I talked to today in London that they’re making robot arms for $8,000 that have the same type of capabilities. We are going to see a sub $5,000 arm by 2025. I think by 2030, we’re gonna see arms even cheaper than that and, just like the PC proliferated everywhere, we’re gonna start to see these robot arms proliferate everywhere. It’s not going to be just in manufacturing and in the supply chain. They’re going to be in kitchens, they’re going to be in grocery stores, they’re going to be doing applications that you and I can’t even conceive of yet because some genius in some basement somewhere is going to dream it up using all of these new technologies that are coming down the pipe, and we hope that our platform makes it easier for these type of people to get into this space and to innovate and to create new things because we’re just at the beginning of this story of robot automation and I’m tremendously excited to see all the cool things that people are going to be able to do with robot arms after they’re made easier to work with.

Tee Ganbold 20:34
Thank you so much, Benjamin. Thank you so much for your time today. I’m so excited. Thank you for coming on Automating The Chain. I hope to follow the story and have you back on very soon.

Benjamin Gibbs 20:47
Thanks, Tee Ganbold. I really appreciate it. Take care.

Tee Ganbold 20:50
Thanks so much for listening! If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please leave us a review and let us know what you liked. To follow along with future episodes, be sure to subscribe on the podcast platform of your choice, or head over to AutomatingTheChain.com for the latest updates. Until next time!