Businesses adopting robots for new tasks

But will the machines and their ilk take away jobs -- even white-collar ones?

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Robotics "appears best suited for processes that are highly rules-driven, and the requirement for which is too tactical or short-lived to justify development by IT organizations," says James Slaby, a research director at Boston-based business and IT consultancy Horses For Sources, who wrote a 2012 report called "Robotic Automation Emerges as a Threat to Traditional Low-Cost Outsourcing."

Robots

"Beyond breaking through the IT development bottleneck, the use of software robots to handle routine business processes has another attraction: It allows enterprises to reduce their reliance on offshore outsourcing," Slaby wrote. He was talking about automating routine jobs and processes via robotic automation, which typically includes both a toolkit and development environment that creates a robot or software agent that runs in a virtual machine and automates rote work like data entry. The toolkit "generates software that runs as a Web service, a scheduled task in a virtual machine, or as a sub-process of an enterprise application like a BPM, workflow, or messaging system," Slaby explains.

Slaby identifies the company Blue Prism as an early leader in this type of software, and he says he expects other companies to enter the market -- many of them fairly soon. For its part, Blue Prism bills itself as a provider of "operational agility" software.

An expanding market

Araten says he doesn't necessarily believe K'NEX is doing anything visionary or cutting-edge. He points out that big companies have used robotics for 20 years. What has changed, he says, is that more aggressive marketing and lower pricing have made robots are more readily available to midsize manufacturers.

"It's only in the first inning for midsize manufacturers, who are conservative and want to see others [use robots] first," Araten says. "So you haven't seen a lot of deployment in midsize manufacturers yet. But expect to see that change in the next few years, because they'll see other midsize companies do it and [they'll] think they should look at it."

For his part, Brooks won't divulge exactly how many Baxters have shipped, but he says it's in the hundreds and he expects it to be in the thousands by the end of the year.

Echoing Araten's observation, he says he set up Rethink Robotics to target the small manufacturers that have not previously used robots because "that's how we make manufacturing stronger in this country -- by making the small manufacturers strong and competitive on the world stage. I set out to do this because I thought it was strategically important for the U.S. to strengthen its manufacturing capabilities."

"It's like in early days of the PC: You got one in the door and there was one desk where all the people in the office used that computer and it took a while before they realized there should be one on every desk," Brooks says. "These things take a while."

This article, "Businesses Adopting Robots for New Kinds of Tasks," was originally published on Computerworld.com.

Esther Shein is a freelance writer and editor. She can be reached at eshein@shein.net.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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