Founder and CEO Nikolaus Correll sees a big opportunity for manufacturers to leverage his company’s robotic helpers.
Robotic Materials took root at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU), where Correll is a robotics professor. His team at CU developed a tactile-sensing robotic hand and “set out to commercialize that” with Robotic Materials, he says.
Manufacturing quickly emerged as the target market. Correll describes a need for “general material-handling solutions that helps manufacturers move things from A to B.”
The result is the GPR-1, built with an autonomous MiR100 cart and the Universal Robots’ UR5e collaborative robot. “We try to use the best commodity hardware you can buy,” says Correll. “It’s our software that makes the difference.”
The final product has the versatility to handle items “as small as a screw or as big as a box,” says Correll. “The robot is a turnkey kind of thing you can use and set up very simply to allow for workers to set up routes where the robot brings them a tray or boxes.”
IPW, a printer cartridge remanufacturer in Denver with 350 employees, has been using the arm in a demonstration test. “IPW is essentially a company that competes with new cartridges you can buy from China,” says Correll. “They’re under a lot of pressure with their prices and efficiency making things in America. The hope is that we can help them get their costs down.”
The user interface is a key feature. “Joel [Cornuet, IPW’s VP of manufacturing] says, ‘It’s as easy to use as an iPhone,'” says Correll.
The company initially focused on selling the tactile-sensing technology, but the market wanted a turnkey solution. “We realized that most people cannot integrate anything,” says Correll. “You lose basically two orders of magnitude of potential customers, so there’s one out of 100 who would want to do it by themselves.”
He adds, “Now we offer very specific things that a manufacturer wants, like driving materials around or bin-picking or assembly, and get them that as a turnkey solution.”
The technology evolved from an infrared sensor embedded in the gripper to a 3D camera in the palm of the robotic hand. “That is so precise that we can forgo the actual tactile sensor,” says Correll. “Instead, we’re measuring the torque in the fingers.”
The torque force sensors in the UR5e work in concert with Robotic Materials’ proprietary software to make for a robot that can accurately grasp and handle objects. “We have done a lot of work in AI to do manipulation,” says Correll.
Target industries include aerospace and other manufacturing sectors with high fully loaded costs. “The aerospace industry has up to $160, $170 fully loaded costs per hour because they’re so strongly regulated,” says Correll.
Another wrinkle: “If it’s not high-mix or low-volume, you can always then you can always build a machine,” he notes. “As soon as you have the volume, you buy a machine. If you only make teddy bears, you have one big teddy bear machine that spits out teddy bears into boxes.”
But for companies that have a need for a more flexible solution, the GPR-1 fits the bill. “The whole idea is that we can have the robot do multiple things,” says Correll.
To counter high fully loaded costs, Robotic Materials plans to rent a single GPR-1 for $24 an operational hour on a monthly basis (about $4,000 per month), or a rent-to-own deal that is $18 an hour with three years paid up front, or roughly $110,000
Correll says the GPR-1 complements a manufacturer’s existing employees, but doesn’t replace them. “What happens at IPW, for example, people who were moving the carts before manually are now doing different things. You can use [workers] differently and get some efficiency increases.”
Originally from Germany, Correll came to Colorado about 20 years ago after stints on the coasts at MIT and Caltech. “I think Colorado is a fantastic place,” he says. “I’m very excited about CAMA and Tim Heaton and how he puts this small ecosystem together. . . . I don’t know how other states do it, but I feel this is a small, little family that we have here in Colorado.”
He adds, “It seems like we can change the whole manufacturing industry from Colorado. I don’t feel we are in the wrong spot. I think we’re in exactly the right spot.”
Challenges: Connecting with customers in a crowded and quickly changing field. “There’s too much noise out there,” says Correll.
With COVID-19, “We can’t meet our customers,” he adds. “I hope that changes soon.”
Opportunities: Correll says he sees aerospace and other industries with high fully loaded costs as early adopters, but there’s another driver that looks to be accelerating. “There has been a huge offshoring trend,” says Correll. “I think robotics will help them [reshore] tremendously.”
“I think we could have a complete revolution where you could start your own sneaker company in your basement with a couple laser cutters, a couple robots, and a couple machines, and two people,” he adds. “I think we’ll see more of that, and we’re already seeing tons of that.”
Needs: Capital. After winning $1.3 million in grants in addition to angel funding, Robotic Materials is putting together a pre-seed round of financing.
“We’re still learning and we need customers to join that endeavor,” says Correll. “Right now, we’re talking to Ball Aerospace. They want to learn about robotics and they think they can learn with us.”