Skip to content

Invasion Of The Robots

Will HelpMate's success in hospitals get it sent home?

Invasion Of The Robots

Will HelpMate's success in hospitals get it sent home?

At age 71, Joseph F. Engelberger knows time is running out on his lifelong ambition. He is already acclaimed around the world as the father of the industrial robot. But the workaholic chairman of HelpMate Robotics Inc. in Danbury, Conn., would rather be remembered as the father of the home robot. "Common sense tells you it's got to end up a bigger market than factory robots," he says.

Don't expect the Smiths and Joneses to turn their housekeeping chores over to a robot soon. The first model--which Engelberger has promised to his wife, Margaret, even though she's not crazy about the idea--won't roll off an assembly line until 30 months after Engelberger amasses at least $5 million to finish development. "The clock starts ticking when I get the money," he says.

People who know Engelberger figure he'll pull it off. "Joe is a very charismatic guy," says Brian R. Carlisle, president of robot maker Adept Technology Inc. in San Jose, Calif. "He's really able to make you believe in his visions." Just ask his kids. Daughter Gay, age 41, is HelpMate's marketing director, and son Jeff, 38, is an engineer at Adept Technology. "When you grow up with someone like him," Gay says, "how could you not want to get into this business?" Investors also are under Engelberger's spell. In January, 1996, HelpMate's initial public offering was a sellout, even though the company had an accumulated deficit of more than $13 million.

Why are so many people rooting for Engelberger? Because without him, Detroit auto workers might still be welding and painting cars by hand. Today's robot industry stems from a 1956 cocktail party in Westport, Conn., where science-fiction fan Engelberger met inventor George Devol. When Devol mentioned he had applied for a patent on a punch-card-controlled mechanical arm for doing repetitive jobs in factories, Engelberger was hooked.

He persuaded his employer, Consolidated Controls Co., to buy Devol's patent. The first prototype, dubbed Unimate, was finished in 1959 and went to work unloading a die-casting machine in a General Motors Corp. factory. But two years later, Consolidated lost interest and told Engelberger to close his shop. "I went to Barnes & Noble and bought six books on finance--and earned my MBA over the weekend," he quips. On Monday, he proposed a spin-off and was given four months to find a backer. He did, and Unimation Inc. was born.

SPUTTERING. During the 1960s, Engelberger fought an uphill battle to persuade skeptical U.S. manufacturers to employ his programmable arms. He got a warmer reception in Japan--and Japanese robot makers quickly rose to world domination. Among Japanese managers, Engelberger is "a legendary figure," says Shigeaki Yanai, a researcher at the Japan Robot Assn.

Unimation held its own against the Japanese, but in 1983 its cash-strapped owner, Condec Corp., sold the company to Westinghouse Electric Corp. for $107 million. "They picked a great time to sell," notes Engelberger. America's U.S. robot business soon sputtered, after dozens of companies jumped into the market and sold some systems that didn't live up to promises. Sales peaked in 1984 at $484 million, then headed south.

Engelberger had hoped Westinghouse would see an opportunity in home robots. When it didn't, he quit and bought a 62-foot, $800,000 sailboat with part of his $3 million take from Unimation's sale. He planned to enjoy life as a gentleman of leisure. That lasted for two months. "I got bored pretty quick," he admits. In late 1984, he formed HelpMate, initially called Transitions Research Corp.

To pave the way for home robots, Engelberger decided to use hospitals as a test bed. In 1988, he sold his first medical unit to Danbury Hospital, which now has two. They roam the hallways running errands--delivering medications, meals, X-rays, and patients' records. Handing these chores to machines frees more time for nurses and orderlies to concentrate on caring for patients, says HelpMate President Thomas K. Sweeny.

Word of HelpMate's robots is spreading. Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas has 4 machines, with 11 more on order. All told, 144 have been hired by 85 hospitals in the U.S. and Canada, 18 in Japan, and 10 in Europe. Purchased outright, the robots cost $110,000, so most are rented for $4 to $6 an hour.

Outwardly, the 4-foot-6-inch robots resemble the box-on-wheels systems that carry the mail in some offices. But there's a crucial difference: A HelpMate doesn't follow a fixed track, such as a wire in the floor. Instead, its electronic memory contains a floor map of the hospital. When summoned by radio or pointed to a location on a built-in video screen, the robot's microprocessor brain calculates the quickest way to get there. En route, the robot uses infrared and ultraviolet beams to dodge people, food carts, and gurneys in busy corridors, and it summons elevators and opens doors with radio signals.

Sweeny says large hospitals can economically justify one HelpMate for every 100 beds, so "our total potential market in the U.S. is 10,000 robots." But that number would leap if the robots had arms. Then they could make beds, help patients out of bathtubs, and relieve nurses of other menial tasks. These expanded capabilities would also be needed in home robots, which is why

HelpMates with arms are next on Engelberger's list. Once HelpMates have been fitted with arms, they could be programmed for such household chores as cooking, washing dishes, and sweeping. Considering the precision factory jobs that Unimation's arms still perform using yesterday's technology, Engelberger foresees no major hurdles in creating household robots. And his chances of attracting a backer are looking up.

In 1992, the U.S. robot business finally turned around. Lately, sales of industrial robots have been posting successive all-time highs (chart). In 1995, American industry found jobs for 10,198 steel-collar workers worth $898 million, according to the Robotic Industries Assn.

CHART: Strong Robot Sales

Now that industrial robots have recovered their sparkle and HelpMate has moved into bigger quarters--Unimation's former home--Engelberger is eager to launch an elder-care robot. Most old folks who enter nursing homes are mentally alert and healthy, Engelberger notes. "They just aren't nimble enough to care for themselves." All the technology developed for patient care would be useful for elder-care robots. Adding certain repetitive household jobs, such as loading the dishwasher or microwave oven, would be fairly easy. Others, including meal preparation, might involve special-purpose attachments. And for finding packaged foods, the robot could have a built-in bar-code reader.

Even a $100,000 home robot would soon pay for itself by enabling people to stay out of nursing homes. With the population quickly aging, demand could surge, bringing down costs to "something more in line with the cost of a car," says Sweeny.

Guess who Engelberger thinks should market them? "If the auto makers want to diversify, they need a product that sells at roughly the same price point and in the same volume," he says. Next, the father of the industrial robot hopes to become the proud papa of Chevybots, Hondabots, and Volvobots.