Meet Stretch the cobot, your new employee

Meet Stretch the cobot, your new employee

How many engineers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? At Rapid Control Service Inc. in Wyoming, the answer is zero. They have a “cobot” that can do it for them.

Meet Stretch, the seven-jointed collaborative robot, also known as a cobot, that can make coffee, flip a burger, pick an item from a shelf and pack it, shake a martini, weld a rivet, flip a switch or fill a prescription . It’s designed to replicate human movement and can perform any number of repetitive tasks — even tasks involving multiple steps — as long as someone is able to show it how.

“There’s no programming involved. You have to teach a cobot,” said Vince Bonczyk, Rapid Control sales engineer and assembly specialist. Along with Todd Stewart, robotics specialist, and Mitch Dennison, operations manager, Bonczyk and the team demonstrate some of Stretch’s functionality in the company’s back room. The excitement was palpable.

Vince Bonczyk said the cobot performs the mundane tasks that sometimes lead to employee turnover among staff. Photo by Lisa Enos

The cobot was instructed to pick up a coffee cup. The movement was calibrated to be smooth, slow and steady because it was carrying liquid. The same movement could have taken place at a much faster speed, but that’s the beauty of the cobot. It’s extremely versatile. It was then instructed to pick up a jar and set it on a nearby table.

The way one teaches a cobot is to guide it to perform a task by moving it and pushing buttons and other commands, like a tap on the head, to get it to grip and release objects. If gripping and releasing isn’t part of the job, it can be fitted with any number of accoutrements, from pneumatic to welding tools and everything in between — anything Rapid Control’s customers need. Instructing the cobot to perform a task can be done by a layman in minutes and in the simplest of ways: hands-on guidance.

The cobot speaks in a “Siri-esque” tone and has different areas on it that light up to denote which mode it’s in. Blue is stationary, green is go, etc. It can be set to non-cobot mode (aka robot mode), too, if it’s fitted with a protective barrier, for jobs that require fast motion that could be dangerous to passersby. It has a host of real-world applications, but don’t worry, sci-fi horror film fans, one thing it will never do is learn things on its own, become sentient or take over the world.

“It’s not AI (artificial intelligence). It learns what you teach it. Nothing more, nothing less. This robot cannot do anything without human intervention,” said Stewart, who joined the Rapid Control team specifically because of the cobots after working 35 years in information technology and robotics in New York City, Chicago and now West Michigan. “I came from a tier one Epson robot industrial distributor. Those are intended to work by themselves, and you have to write code and program them. You have safety concerns with that.”

Stewart, who is new to the Rapid Control team, sees huge potential for the cobots in West Michigan, noting that on average the robotics industry has seen a 10% to 15% annual increase. In 2021, 630,000 of the units were shipped worldwide.

“Of course, we are going to target industrial manufacturers. We see a huge potential with ma and pa businesses, though, too; agriculture processing plants, areas this company wouldn’t have looked at before. I think there’s a lot of potential in other markets, too,” Dennison said.

“We have been manufacturing a supplier to the machine building trade,” Dennison added, listing a slew of West Michigan customers that included companies in the metalworking, automotive and furniture industries. The company’s customers range in size from “Fortune 1000 to small tool and die, mom and pops,” Denison said. “We see this (OB7 Stretch) as a tool, not just for factories, but for small businesses.”

The company is ready to start filling orders and the lead time for the cobot is one-to-two weeks.

Rapid Control is selling the OB7 Stretch at a price point it reckons is equivalent to a minimum wage employee’s annual salary ($31,500), so that it pays for itself after a short time.

“Return on investment on a robotics solution varied from application to application, and is anywhere from six months to a year,” Dennison said. “Because of relatively low investment needed in expertise, it reduces that barrier to entry. People can do the bulk of it in-house, getting it up and running.”

The Productive Robots Stretch product line is a natural solution for a market currently experiencing labor shortages and supply chain issues, he said. Companies faced with large orders due to gaps in the supply chain that came about due to the COVID-19 pandemic could soon be filled, with no overtime pay or worker’s comp issues, because a cobot doesn’t mind working 24-7.

The Rapid Control team was quick to point out that cobots are intended to do repetitive tasks — jobs that West Michigan employers are increasingly difficult to fill.

“The way it impacts your job situation is it’s there to perform the menial tasks, laborious tasks, mundane ones that lead to job turnover,” Bonczyk said.

“Most importantly, it’s meant to not replace workers, but to increase productivity,” Dennison added.

The OB7 Stretch is manufactured in Santa Barbara, California, by Productive Robots — one of four 7-joint robots in the same product line ranging from a 58-pound version of Stretch to the OB7-Max, which is 128 pounds and has a reach of more than 5 feet.

Rapid Control will be demonstrating the OB7 Stretch during the Advanced Manufacturing Expo at DeVos Place, Aug. 11-12.