Questions and Answers with:
Founder & Chief Executive Officer
By Patricia Stamas-Jacoby
In addition to being named a 2016 Innovator and featured panelist at the Innovators’ Spotlight, New Product Innovation & Development 2016: A Frost & Sullivan Executive MindXchange, Adam Ellison is also the Co-Founder & Chief Executive Officer of Modbot, a rapid robot development platform. Ellison recently reflected on some key questions about robotics, manufacturing, business and innovation.
It’s not every business that boasts the tagline…'We believe everyone should be able to build their own robot.' What was your inspiration for founding Modbot?
Like many inventions, Modbot was initially born from the frustrations that Daniel Pizzata, my co-founder, and I experienced in our previous work. At the time, we were working on separate robotic projects: Daniel was developing autonomous vehicles for the Australian Defense force, and I was designing a giant beer carton dispensing robot for liquor stores. We were frustrated by the fact that the servo motors and components available on the market were complex and either prohibitively expensive, or cheap and poorly made.
Together, we brainstormed what the ideal robotic solution to this problem would look like, and settled on a modular concept. This idea would make building new robotic concepts as fast and simple as assembling a Lego figure or Ikea furniture. Instead of solving the same robotics problems over and over again, we want future robot builders to be focused on the application itself rather than trying to make ill-suited components work together.
What makes your robot business innovative?
The robotics industry was built on a set of incentives that do not favor the end user. Currently, installing a robot in an industrial setting requires the use of a 3rd party integration service, who will typically suggest equipment and ultimately design the robot cell. Unfortunately, these services are often compensated on a "cost-plus" basis, meaning there are subtle incentives to increase the complexity and cost of the system. Additionally, there is also an incentive to use specialized equipment that only these organizations know how to service etc., in order to increase their long term lock-in.
As a side effect of this process, robotics companies have no strong reason to improve the usability and maintainability of their products over time. This is part of the reason why many industrial interfaces look like they were designed in 1993 (and they probably were). The end result is that the customer often ends up with an expensive and complex robot system that is over-sized and under-utilized.
We have built a robot development platform that empowers people across many industries to create their own special-purpose robotic applications, rather than using expensive integrators or over-sized industrial solutions. Our aim is to align our incentives with our customers, so that their productivity is our success as well.
Your two passions are robotics/automotive machinery and business. So, you must see some business applications in the future for Modbot, correct?
Yes absolutely! Some of our most supportive customers are large manufacturing companies that would like to change the way they do business. They want to take a pro-active approach to automation and get in front of their competitors by using the latest technology and internalizing that expertise.
I personally see robotics as a "multiplying" technology. It will take whatever you are doing now and make it 5 times more efficient, or 5 times safer, or 5 times more reliable. This is the reason businesses are interested in our product.
How do you see robots -- or Modbots -- changing or affecting the business landscape?
Of course I have a biased position here, but I would love to see Modbot become the de-facto standard for new automation solutions. The same way Amazon Web Services has become the go-to for cloud solutions, drastically decreasing the cost of deploying new cloud infrastructure, I would like Modbot to become the default choice for creative new robotic solutions.
The long term effects of this new accessibility to unrestricted innovation in the automation space will be huge. Even small businesses will have the ability to set up and compete with the manufacturing giants by automating their physical processes. We hope that Modbot will also bring manufacturing back to wherever it makes the most sense logistically. Robots will cost the same all over the world, therefore outsourcing will no longer be the default decision for manufacturers. This new future will present many challenges, but overall, it will simply reward the most forward hinking businesses with huge efficiency benefits.
Do you have any products that currently serve the manufacturing industry?
Yes we do! Our first product is a 75 millimeter diameter modular robotic system that is perfect for 'human scale' assembly and automation tasks. As a startup, we have to be LASER focused when it comes to releasing products, which is why we are running a closed beta pilot right now with two blue-chip manufacturers. Once we are certain that the product meets our own most demanding customers' performance targets, we will expand our pilot to include smaller manufacturers as well as a mixture of startups and educational institutions.
One of your goals is to make robots affordable for the average person, correct? And you want to use that as a springboard for innovation as well…
Yes! In fact, this has been true from the beginning. Our long term aim is to massively increase the accessibility of high quality robot parts. This means supporting the typical industrial applications as well as individual developers, small teams and educational institutions who could well be leading the charge to develop the latest robotic applications. The biggest hurdles for robotic adoption are cost and complexity, and we're working feverishly on both!
Your goal to “have a long-term positive impact on humanity” is admirable. Any details you care to share?
To me, it's important to keep humanitarian considerations at the top of our priorities. Ultimately, companies exist to better distribute the resources we have on this planet, and I like to keep this in mind when prioritizing our direction.
In my mind, humans have come a long way since the days of the hunter-gatherer, mostly due to technology. Robots have the potential to let us escape the constraints of the physical world, helping us achieve higher pursuits. I have spent time as a worker in a production line, doing welding actually, so I know what it feels like to be treated like a robot. It's not great.
Adam Ellison is an Australian entrepreneur, engineer and mechanism designer. Adam has worked at both large corporations as well as smaller consultancies in mechanical design and engineering. After acquiring a diverse range of business skills and an extensive amount of mechanical experience, he returned to his technical roots and launched Modbot, a robotics company, with Daniel Pizzata, in January 2014.