Robots invade Northwest Arkansas in many areas

story by Jamie Smith
jsmith@thecitywire.com

The global commercial robotics industry could be a $20 billion market by 2016, fueled by uses that range in Northwest Arkansas from precision surgery to cooking French Fries.

The International Federation of Robotics reports that 2012 marked the second-highest level of sales of industrial robots, with more than 159,000 units sold worldwide.

"Between 2008 and 2012 robot sales have increased by 9% on average per year. The demand for industrial robots is increasing due to the accelerating trend towards automation all over the world. We estimate that robot installations will reach a similar level again in 2013,” Andreas Bauer, chairman of the IFR Industrial Robot Suppliers Group, noted in a statement.

About 70% of the total robot sales in 2012 went to Japan, China, United Sates, Korea and Germany. In the United States, the trend toward automation increased robot installations to 22,400 units, a new peak level – with much of that coming from the auto industry.

The Robotics Industries Association (RIA) reported that 10,854 robots valued at $679.3 million were ordered from North American robotics companies in the first six months of 2013. The activity was a 2% increase from the 2012 period, and up 1.3% over the previous record period in 2005. The Freedonia Group predicts that global demand for robots will grow by 11% a year and reach $20.2 billion by 2016.

PERSONAL ROBOTICS
And robots aren’t just for industrial or commercial use.

ABI Research estimates the personal robotics market will grow to more than $19 billion in 2017, “driven in large part by sales of telepresence and security robots featuring high-quality cameras, microphones and processors that allow the robots to serve as interactive substitutes for human beings.”

Larry Fisher, research director of NextGen, ABI Research’s emerging technologies research incubator, said personal robotics will help businesses same money and tie on travel, and will help individuals in many ways.

“For consumers, telepresence robots can help shut-ins join family events, or allow families to monitor and interact with the elderly or infirm in a way that a quick telephone call can’t match,” Fisher said in a statement.

FULFILLING A NEED
Acumen Holdings is a Fayetteville-based eCommerce company operated by entrepreneurs John James and Terry Turpin. The company operates a number of specialty online stores, including the popular Country Outfitter.

In 2011, Acumen installed a robotic system from Kiva Systems to manage all of Acumen’s inventory storage and fulfillment needs.

“Before Kiva, we had an army of people running up and down aisles and climbing up to get into boxes to fulfill orders,” said Greg Primm, Acumen’s vice president of operations. “(By utilizing the Kiva System) we’ve been able to reduce errors and it’s really transformed our business from a supply chain and fulfillment standpoint. It’s moved the needle of our business.”

As the company evolves to operate different e-commerce sites with differing products, the Kiva System can evolve to meet the changing product needs.

One might think using robotics to perform what used to be a human’s job would mean jobs were taken away from the company. The opposite is true, however, at Acumen. For example, some humans are still required to work in the warehouse with the robots, but the majority of the difference is that now Acumen can focus its human resources on growing the business, not fulfilling orders.

“We want our people to focus on the growth areas of our business including design and development and customer service,” Primm said. “It really enables us to offer better jobs.”

Acumen recently moved to a larger facility, as well. In April they moved from an about 50,000-square-foot space to one with 115,000 square feet.

LOVIN’ IT
At McDonald’s Northwest Arkansas, the use of automated equipment has shown similar results to Acumen in that it reduces errors, improves efficiency and allows the company to focus its human resources in other areas.

“What we do have is very cool,” said Bill Mathews, who co-owns all of the McDonald’s in Northwest Arkansas with his brother, Walter Mathews.

“We have an Automated Beverage System (ABS) in our drive thru that allows the order taker to input the drink size and flavor into the POS and that interfaces with the ABS. It drops the cup, fills it with ice and then the indicated flavor of drink. The drive thru worker then puts a lid on the cup and serves it.”

It used to be that drive thru drink stations required an employee’s entire attention, which can now be directed elsewhere.

The McDonald’s also use a new automated frozen fry dispenser that keeps the fries frozen until the moment they go into the fryer. Previously, frozen fries were manually loaded in bulk into fry baskets, which then waited to be fried. By having the automated system, less labor is required at the fry station and the fries are able to stay frozen longer. This improves the taste and quality of the end product, Mathews said.

By not having someone constantly filling the fry baskets, that individual can now be placed on the new frozen drink dispenser. The company is also placing more employees in customer service areas instead of food preparation because of the automations.

These systems are not used nationwide yet, but it’s moving in that direction as McDonald’s locations are built or remodeled, he said.

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HEALING HANDS
Six years ago, Northwest Health System became the first healthcare provider in Northwest Arkansas to offer the da Vinci Robotic System, which allows for more surgeries to be performed with minimally invasive procedures. The surgeries available with the device range from gallbladder removal to hysterectomy.

The new systems typically cost $2 million and at Northwest Medical Center in Springdale, where the da Vinci is located, there have been approximately 1,400 surgeries performed with the device.

Dr. Jason Hurt is an OB/GYN with the hospital and he regularly uses the da Vinci.

“I use robotics in gynecology to perform operations that are to difficult to do with straight laparoscopic surgery that would otherwise require me to do the surgery open,” he said. “With robotics we are able to do more minimally invasive surgery.”

Hurt explains that a surgeon is still operating on the patient through manipulation of the robotic elements. The da Vinci system has better dexterity and more “hands” than typical laparoscopic surgery. This allows surgeons to offer patients more surgery options.

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