ABB-backed start-up's $6,600 robot designed to replace 'tasks, not jobs'

Key Points
  • London-based Automata says its robot arm Eva is a more compact and affordable alternative to other machines in the market.
  • The firm is backed by Swiss engineering giant ABB, which recently contributed to a $7.4 million investment in the company.
  • Its founders were originally architects working for the company created by renowned Iraqi-British draftswoman Zaha Hadid.
Eva, a robotic arm developed by U.K. start-up Automata Technologies, is perched on a table near a laptop.
Automata Technologies

Tucked away in a small converted warehouse in London is the office of Automata, a British start-up working on a machine it thinks might shake up the industrial robotics space.

Automata makes a tabletop robot arm called Eva. With a £4,990 ($6,600) price tag, the machine is designed to be a more compact and affordable alternative to the larger robots that help manufacture everything from cars to phones but typically cost tens of thousands of dollars.

That was one thing that led Swiss engineering giant ABB to invest in the company early on, co-founder Suryansh Chandra told CNBC in an interview. The firm contributed to Automata's seed funding, and more recently backed a $7.4 million investment in the company.

"We were still a two-people company with a prototype we could carry around in our backpack, which was insane for ABB because their robots weigh 50 kilos," Chandra said.

Stepping foot in Automata's offices, a group of its machines can be seen perched around a table. They're communicating with each other, picking up empty cans, using a camera to check whether they have the right lid — one lid has a black mark to show it's faulty — and then sending them along a conveyor belt to decide which can passes and which fails.

The display is just one demonstration of Eva in action. Chandra shows a video of the robotic arm lifting a large metal sheet to take it from one spot in a factory to another. This is a job that was previously filled by a female worker in her 20s, fellow co-founder Mostafa ElSayed said.

That staffer hasn't been made redundant, however. She now programs the robot herself, and "gets to think about how to roll it out in the rest of the factory," ElSayed said.

The anecdote is part of a wider theme within the company, its founders say. Eva wasn't designed to replace workers — a source of worry for many economists — but to fulfill some of the simpler tasks that could easily be done instead by a machine.

With robots being able to automate processes from moving around stock in warehouses to serving up coffee, experts are worried companies could take the route of laying off workers in droves to put robots in their place as a means of cutting costs.

Founders Chandra and ElSayed don't subscribe to that philosophy. They say that businesses can't grow by firing workers; rather, they should automate certain menial tasks so workers can make better use of their time. It's about replacing "tasks, not jobs," ElSayed says.

'Held hostage' to the gearbox

Both of Automata's founders were originally architects working for Zaha Hadid Architects, the company created by renowned Iraqi-British draftswoman Zaha Hadid.

Hadid, who died in 2016, designed the aquatics center for the London 2012 Olympics and the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan.

"If we can make buildings, how hard can robots be?" was the way the two thought about the project around the time they established their business in 2015, Chandra said.

But it wasn't long before they ran into some difficulty. The gearbox — the set of gears more commonly associated with cars — was the company's "first major technological challenge," ElSayed said.

"There were moments where the survival of the company hinged on a test running on the gearbox," he said, adding that many new companies operating in the robotics space are often "held hostage" to the mechanism.

He explained further that the device is made predominantly by two companies, and that his start-up didn't want to become a "slave to their price point." Automata's gearing system was made "mostly from scratch" and costs less to make than to buy from another supplier, he added.

Simple to use

The firm touts its easy-to-use software, called Choreograph, as another selling point that differentiates Eva from other major industrial competitors.

Automata's software lets a user program the mechanical arm to perform certain actions. Someone can, for instance, manually move it into different positions, logging each checkpoint with the press of a button, and then play out the chain of movements on a loop.

"We're not inventing anything here, we're just bringing consumer-level simplicity into industrial hardware," Chandra said, while demonstrating the software.

"What we're doing is making automation accessible by making robots that can be set up within a few minutes and cost a fraction of the other industrial robots," he added.

And industrial robotics is no small industry. According to the International Federation of Robotics, 387,000 robots were shipped globally in 2017 — up 30 percent from the previous year — with sales hitting a record $16.2 billion.