Can robots help the U.S. get its economic mojo back?

Written for TechCrunch by Steve Cousins, Founder & CEO, Savioke

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A 2017 ranking on global competitiveness from the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) shows the US in fourth place, it’s lowest position in five years, slipping from third a year earlier. Hong Kong, Switzerland, and China now place before the US when it comes to providing a stable environment for businesses to flourish.

We only have to look at the top three most competitive countries to understand what’s driving economic growth for their businesses and prosperity for their citizens; the common thread is aggressive adoption of automation.

These countries consider robots the fuel that will ignite business growth, enable humans to do more productive and meaningful work, and expand overall economies.

If we really want to reverse our country’s downward trajectory in the world’s competitive ranking, we need to embrace robots — and all forms of automation — with open arms. While some people fear robots will replace human workers, there’s overwhelming evidence robotics and other emerging technologies will actually make the US economy stronger, providing us the resources we need to address dislocation or other social issues we face.


What’s happening on the global stage within countries is also reflected in individual businesses. Companies that use the latest automation technologies are the most productive and profitable, and are thus the ones aggressively hiring.

As noted by Tim O’Reilly, founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, in a recent TechCrunch article,“If you look at … a combination of man and machine, and you look at some of the examples that have really kind of surprised us in just how they’ve taken off — like Uber, like the Apple store — they are actually cases where humans are made more powerful by this background. And that creates a better customer experience, which creates new demand.”

Amazon is an example of strong workforce expansion despite, or perhaps as a result of, heavy investment in automation. In the quarter that ended in June, Amazon’s workforce grew by 42% year-on-year to 382,400 jobs.

In hospitality, an industry that uses my company’s robots,  job growth directly resulting from automation is something we’re witnessing first hand. Residence Inn LAX is only one example of a hotel that had to hire additional staff to support the bump in business attributable to their robot butler. It’s clear, for American companies — and the US economy overall — to remain competitive globally, businesses must embrace automation and other new technologies.

Unfortunately, as US leaders drag their heels on adopting robotic automation, other countries are moving full steam ahead to embrace the robot revolution. China, for one, unquestionably believes robots will make its economy more competitive. With annual spending on robotics set to exceed US$59 billion by 2020, China is by far the largest and fastest-growing robotics market in the world, accounting for more than 30% of global spending in the next three years, says a recent report from IDC.


“China has launched a sweeping proposal called ‘Made in China 2025,’ as well as a five-year robot plan, to focus on automating key sectors of the economy including car manufacturing, electronics, home appliances, logistics, and food production,” explained a recent Bloomberg article titled Inside China’s Plans for World Robot Domination. And and even though the Chinese economy trails the US by $7 trillion, it’s catching up quickly due to aggressive use of technology to make its companies and citizens more productive. A study by PricewaterhouseCooper says China’s economy will surpass the US by 2050.

US sentiment towards robots is often negative, supported by one-sided reports and studies of automation taking over the workforce. However, rather than looking at automation replacing people, consider the economic impact of robots and humans working together as a team to solve problems.

Robots may be better at heavy-lifting and repetitive tasks but they are no match to a human who can draw on experience to make decisions. Robots don’t need to rely on checklists or schedules to ensure they don’t miss a beat. But where robots do fall short is on compassion, negotiation, and the ability to know when to make exceptions. There’s little doubt that together the robot/human team will lead to greater productivity, safety, and quality.

The US has long been known for setting the bar when it comes to innovation and progress. Why put on the brakes now when the stakes are so high and the competition so fierce? It’s only when we, as a nation, are committed to adopting new technologies like robots, that will we’ll start seeing the economy turn around and our global standing rise. Not only will robots make companies more productive and people more valuable, but they will most assuredly help make America competitive again.

Steve Cousins is founder and CEO of Savioke, which develops and deploys autonomous robots that work in human environments to improve people’s lives. Steve was previously president and CEO of robotics incubator Willow Garage.

Savioke Partners with Swisslog to Automate Medication Delivery in Hospitals

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Savioke is expanding into the global hospital market through a new partnership with Swisslog, a leading supplier of solutions for medication and supply chain management in healthcare.  Here is the official announcement:

Swisslog Healthcare Invests in Savioke’s Mobile Robotics Technology

Swisslog-Savioke partnership will bring Relay Autonomous Mobile Robots to healthcare environments.

DENVER, Colo. (August 28, 2017) – Swisslog Healthcare, a leading supplier of solutions for medication and supply chain management in healthcare, announces its investment in Savioke, developer of the Relay autonomous delivery robot, a friendly indoor service robot that works safely, securely and reliably in human environments. This new partnership allows the companies to jointly develop services and solutions that increase health systems’ efficiency and enable them to deliver better patient care.

“Many leading hospitals are providing experience-focused programs that enhance patient satisfaction and improve loyalty and referrals,” notes Stephan Sonderegger, CEO of Swisslog Healthcare. “These ‘concierge’ services are modeled after the hospitality industry where Savioke mobile robots are already commercially deployed in dozens of hotels worldwide. There are clear applications for this technology in healthcare, which we are excited to explore together.” Swisslog sold legacy autonomous mobile robot (AMR) models in healthcare applications for nearly 10 years. The Savioke Relay is a dynamic, low-profile AMR that combines fast, secure delivery with a responsive, friendly human interface for more reliable and personalized patient services.

“Savioke’s Relay Robot has widespread applications in all parts of the healthcare supply chain including securely delivering prescription and over-the-counter medications to nurses and patients in hospitals,” said Steve Cousins, founder and CEO of Savioke. “Our joint partnership with Swisslog, a leader in medication supply chain solutions, will enable Relay to expand these use cases and enter new healthcare-related markets globally.”

The two companies will work closely together to develop new solutions and services that increase the efficiency of the medication supply chain and to enable services that improve patient relationships with health systems. Swisslog Healthcare is Savioke’s exclusive global partner for medication and supply chain management in hospitals and will introduce new solutions and services to the market over the course of the next twelve months.


A Summer of Learning, Experience, and Fun for Savioke’s 2017 Interns

2017 Savioke Interns from left to right:  Matthew Cheng, Joshua Li, Ben Cousins, Kelly Allen, Casey Parsay, Natalie Friedman, Rohan Agrawal, Nima Rahnemoon.

2017 Savioke Interns from left to right:  Matthew Cheng, Joshua Li, Ben Cousins, Kelly Allen, Casey Parsay, Natalie Friedman, Rohan Agrawal, Nima Rahnemoon.

Each year Savioke invites a talented and creative group of interns to spend their summer immersed in the world of robotics. Over the course of about 12 weeks, the interns work side by side with the Savioke team to gain valuable work experience in areas of engineering, navigation, business, production, operations and human/robot interaction. And because helping to create world-changing robots isn’t the only cool way to spend time, the interns were also treated to many fun events and outings such as a company-wide hackathon, escape room team building, and a visit to San Francisco to watch the Giants beat the Phillies. As the summer comes to a close, many of the interns provided a brief glimpse into their experience at Savioke and shared ideas for what they’d like to see in a future robot.

Casey Parsay, Finance, Loyola Marymount University

The internship program allowed me to wear many different hats. I worked with sales, marketing, and finance, and even helped build a couple of robots with the production team. The flexibility of the program allowed me to explore various career options. Though I'm still not quite sure what career path I wish to pursue, my time at Savioke has shown me I have interests outside of finance, and the people there gave me great advice on how to pursue them.

Casey’s Robot of the Future: I’d love to see a robot that works in retirement home, one that can change sheets, deliver  food, and cater to every need of the elderly. A robot like that would allow humans to develop personal relationships with it.

Natalie Friedman, Cognitive Science, UC Santa Cruz

During my time at Savioke, I got to experience human-robot interaction in the real world by seeing Relay working with staff and guests at a hotel site. It was powerful. Drawing design implications from these experiences, along with my academic research, brought clarity to the meaning of UX in a robot context. What a fascinating exploration that was!

Natalie’s Robot of the Future: A robot mailbox kiosk that not only labels and boxes your items, but also gift wraps them.

Kelly Allen, Mechanical Engineering, San Diego State University

This summer I was fortunate enough to work for two incredible mechanical engineers (both women) who were a huge inspiration to me. My internship was a totally hands-on experience where I helped the team build robots, study environments, and design solutions. With the support of my mentors, I discovered that engineering involves so much more creativity and critical thinking than I ever learned in the classroom. Now I know that mechanical engineering is exactly the right career for me.  

Kelly’s Robot of the Future: I think an important and life-changing task for a robot would be disease detection. A robot that is able to chemically sense an imbalance and diagnose with either a scan or a prick to the finger would be revolutionary in the medical field. This would help save lives and prevent unnecessary surgeries and medication.

Nima Rahnemoon, Robotic Systems Development, Carnegie Mellon

 Before working at Savioke, I didn't think robots would be able to operate in the real world at scale.  Savioke is doing amazing work pushing that boundary. After my internship, I've become more open-minded about working on applications that involve robotics in the vicinity of humans.

Nima’s Robot of the Future: I believe we're on the verge of a physical version of the Internet. The key enabler for the physical Internet is a cost-efficient method of deploying isolated infrastructure (aka underground). I envision this as being a robot that could automate underground drilling/pipe deployment.  

Matthew Cheng, Engineering, Columbia University

At Savioke, I learned about all the nuances involved in keeping a fleet of robots operational and the value of having pre-existing data. I've seen my observations from the field translate directly to navigation changes, and have seen how the data I've gathered can be used in future iterations of product development.

Matthew’s Robot of the Future: I think it would be incredible to see robots start taking on tasks and completely automate the delivery process, from robots manufacturing goods, robots transporting finished goods to retailers, and then moving those goods from the retailers to the consumers.