Legacy maker of tools for humans is automating its factories

Automation is now a matter of survival in a number of industries, and that's created an opening for startups offering automation stopgaps

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Baltimore-based Ready Robotics, which makes deployable robots to quickly automate dumb factories, just announced a new customer relationship with Stanley Black & Decker, a maker of power tools.

The irony of a company that makes tools for humans (the company's slogan is "For those who make the world") notwithstanding, the announcement is a good indication of where we are in the industrial robot adoption curve.

Once the realm of heavy manufacturing, automation is now a matter of survival in industries like shipping & logistics and light manufacturing. That's led to a fair amount of upheaval as companies seek to optimize production lines and reduce costs in order to stay competitive.

The problem is that adding automation post hoc to industrial operations is difficult and pricey. Deployment has typically required weeks, in addition to a lot of upfront capital.

That's led to the rise of a growing number of robotics startups making task-agnostic platforms to automate jobs common to various industrial processes.

Materials handling--literally moving stuff from one area of a warehouse or factory to another--has been an area of especially robust development, for example. Fetch Robotics and OTTO Motors are two companies making materials handling solutions. Systems from each can move through structured and semi-structured environments with much less risk to workers than manned forklifts or carts that follow tracks.

Ready Robotics, whose telling website tagline is "Get an unfair advantage on your competition" makes mobile robotics systems specifically geared toward small and medium-sized operations.

The company's TaskMate system comprises a mobile base with an articulated robot arm. End effectors can be swapped out quickly, allowing the robot to perform a number of tasks, such as picking and placing, light assembly, and even operating existing machinery.

Stanley Black & Decker has dozens of factories running industrial machine tools. Rather than swap out those machines with custom automation solutions, which would cost tens of millions of dollars and create down-time, the tools manufacturer is deploying TaskMates.

"Our overall goal is to get to that lights out operation for maximum flexibility and efficiency, and the TaskMate system is a first step for us on that journey," says James Olsen, Manufacturing Engineering Manager at the Stanley Black & Decker pilot facility, signaling the legacy brand's plans to eventually do away with human workers in its factories.

"Couple the ease of setup with capable performance and we can achieve an ROI in less than two years on this first application alone."

Ready Robotics recently announced seed funding of $3.75 million.