You might expect ground zero of the robotics movement to look like a mission control center, with gearheads tracking some exotic humanoid. Instead, the test track at iRobot Corp. in Burlington, Mass., looks like a Good Housekeeping lab. A 12-ft.by-16-ft. raised floor is divided into smaller patches of floor coverings -- wood, tile, and a thin carpet. The robot, meanwhile, looks like an oversize Frisbee that crawls across the floor, gobbling up crumbs as it goes.
How did it happen that the robotic revolution is kicking off with the Roomba, an automated floor vacuum that will mesmerize -- or maybe terrify -- your pet cat? It was a fortuitous meeting of brain power, ambition, and a distaste for housework on the part of iRobot engineers, whose backgrounds range from artificial-intelligence research to the design of unmanned extraterrestrial vehicles.
iRobot has a surprising hit on its hands. Sales topped 200,000 in its first year. Without any help from splashy advertising, press reviews and customer buzz have spread the word that the 3-inch-high device can vacuum a 10-ft. by 12-ft. room in about 45 minutes. Its only big drawbacks: It can't do high-pile carpets and the brushes may clog with hair.
Now, however, the company must prove that it's more than a one-shot invention shop. With an upgrade of the original Roomba just launched, iRobot is fortifying its previously off-the-cuff manufacturing and distribution plans, while pushing the robot vac through a much broader set of retailers. In the words of Colin Angle, iRobot's 36-year-old co-founder and chief executive: "Housework should be a choice," not a chore.
When Angle and two MIT colleagues founded iRobot in 1990, they never dreamed it would take more than a decade to build an everyday robotic device. The company stayed afloat during the long gestation by building one-off gear for the Pentagon, such as roving search robots used in Afghanistan. To develop a mass-market device, they worked with established companies such as S.C. Johnson & Son Inc., maker of cleaners including Windex and Pledge, and toymaker Hasbro Inc. But Johnson scrapped iRobot's robotic floor cleaner before it made it to production, and Hasbro's lifelike doll died after one dismal Christmas season.
At first, Roomba wasn't supposed to be a vacuum at all. The goal was to make a mechanical carpet sweeper, without vacuum suction, that was cheap, easy to use and, well, worked. Even brushes aren't so simple, however. The diameter, length, curve, and density of bristles all affect performance. iRobot tried 40 brushes over many weeks and even had an intern count bristles before making a choice.
The vacuum didn't enter the picture until late 2001, when members of a focus group said they would pay double for vacuum power. That price -- about $200 -- was what iRobot had hoped to get for their mechanical carpet sweeper. The Roomba team and Angle were standing on the other side of the glass, watching the session. "There was a huge gasp because we realized instantly that we had to design a vacuum, and there was no time to do it," says team member Paul E. Sandin. The specs had to be at the factory in southern China in three months.
The eight-member Roomba team quickly hired a vacuum consultant who told them that vacuum cleaners were more art than science. "It would've been nicer to have some math to go by," says Sandin. Instead, the team resorted to trial and error, creating a thin space between two rubber strips as the nozzle to increase its suction power -- a trick learned from the S.C. Johnson robotic floor cleaner.
The robotics turned out to be less harrowing: One person wrote almost the entire program governing movement. Closer to a game controller than a PC in computing power, the Roomba proceeds almost at random across the floor, only knowing to rotate and keep moving when it hits an object. To make it appear more intelligent, the behavior program causes it to move in concentric circles sometimes, while sensors keep it from falling down stairs or moving into other rooms.
After some 20 iterations, Roomba grew more sophisticated -- but also more complex. The final design, consisting of 100 plastic parts, motors, controllers, sensors, brushes, a dust bin, and more, posed special challenges for Jetta Co., iRobot's Hong Kong-based contract manufacturer. Angle expected to have the production kinks worked out in two weeks. Instead, it took four months. "Every day, there'd be a list of problems 50 items long," says Angle. "The minutiae were terrifying."
As of the summer of 2002, iRobot still had done little to gear up for a retail launch. Angle himself acted as marketing manager, meeting with specialty retailers such as Brookstone Inc. and The Sharper Image and urging them to carry the product while training their salespeople. Major retailers wouldn't give him the time of day. The logistics "team," meanwhile, was one rep on the dock in Hong Kong with a spreadsheet listing delivery addresses for six containers.
As the launch approached, iRobot moved cautiously in crafting a marketing message and handling logistics. Roomba would be called an "intelligent floor vacuum" rather than a robot -- for fear of scaring off consumers. To keep cash flowing and reduce the risk of carrying unwanted inventory, Angle struck quick payment terms with retailers and lowballed his factory orders: He initially asked Jetta for 15,000, with room for 10,000 more if things went well.
The order proved to be too small. Within days of receiving its first container, Brookstone wanted to buy every Roomba available. It even footed the bill to fly, rather than ship, the extra Roombas from China when a longshoremen's strike closed West Coast ports. "People were enamored with the whole idea of the Jetsons becoming real," says Brookstone CEO Michael F. Anthony. By Christmas 2002, the factory churned out 50,000 to meet holiday demand.
Calls from major retailers looking for Roombas started to pour in, says Angle. Currently, in addition to the specialty retailers, more than 4,000 outlets, including major chains such as Target, Kohl's, and Linens 'n' Things carry the Roomba. Prices for the original unit start at $200 and go up to $250 for the Pro Elite model.
iRobot is pulling out the stops to keep the public interested -- and supplied. In March, the company hired consumer-appliance marketer Gregory F. White from The Holmes Group Inc. He has filled a West Coast warehouse with 70,000 Roombas to keep retailers stocked, and he is spending $7.5 million on Roomba's first prime-time TV spot, to air in October. The tag line: "If it's down there, we'll get it."
Inevitably, iRobot will come up against competition. Hoover Co. is cooking something up and Electrolux already sells a $1,500 lookalike. iRobot wants to stay a step ahead and is working on other domestic helpers -- which could be anything from table dusters to clothing folders. Though mum on its next project, due out next year, the company is talking with big consumer-product manufacturers, including P&G, to jointly develop other robotic devices. It seems that life for America's cats will never be the same.
By Faith Arner in Burlington, Mass.