Steve Ross

CAMotion Featured in AJC News Article

Made in Atlanta: CAMotion Robots
By Michael E. Kanell
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Original AJC Article

When Computer Automated Motion — CAMotion — had to leave its 14th Street offices about two years ago, the founders had good reason to consider moving from the city to some far-flung suburb. But they had a better reason to stay.

“We had a big decision,” said co-founder Steve Dickerson, CAMotion’s chairman and chief technology officer, as well as a Georgia Tech professor emeritus of mechanical engineering. “Should we go toward the airport? Should we go out to Norcross or Marietta looking for cheaper rents?"

What mattered more than low rents, CAMotion’s executives decided, was staying close to a research center whose resources can help turn an interesting academic idea into a business. With that in mind, CAMotion leased new space but stayed near Georgia Tech.

The company, which makes industrial robots, participates in research at Tech’s Manufacturing Research Center, while also hiring Tech-trained experts, Dickerson said.

“We would be in a disadvantageous position -— both in experimentation as well as in demonstrating our technology — if we didn’t have Georgia Tech involved.”

CAMotion’s products are not the Hollywood kind of robots with faces that trade cutesy bon mots with Harrison Ford. They are complex machines with a straightforward mission.

“The key to our technologies is how we move things around,” said Alex Furth, CAMotion’s chief executive.

Costing between $30,000 and $300,000, CAMotion’s robots pick up things, carry them and put them where they are supposed to go. Small stuff like packaged chicken. Bigger things like a 100-pound box of meat, or a 200-pound stack of printed paper.

The robot needs to precisely time its actions, calibrating grip and movements. In many cases, the robot must also “see” the object first, to make sure it is where it is supposed to be.

Each order from a customer means new requirements. And as a robot is built and tested, numerous tweakings may be needed.

Being down the street from Georgia Tech has proven to be a good decision, Furth said. “The closer the development of the software is to where things are actually getting made, the faster we can improve what we are doing.”

The company believes the potential is huge. The U.S. robot market is about $1 billion a year, but Singapore and Germany have at least twice as many robots per worker. Compared to the U.S., Japan has four times the number of robots per worker, Furth said.

“Our goal over the next five or six years is to be the largest U.S. robotics company,” Furth said. “On the other hand, there aren’t that many large U.S. robot companies now.”

Founded in 1996 by Dickerson and two other professors, the company spent several years as part of the Advanced Technology Development Center, which was set up to nurture technology start-ups. CAMotion became a viable business in 2001, Dickerson said.

The company gets about 80 percent of its business from printing companies, but executives believe it can offer machines to a range of businesses. Potential customers include any company with processes using muscle — actions that can be done by machine.

Isn’t that one more way for technology to eliminate jobs? Yes and no, Furth said, illustrating the point with a scenario: Say you have a chicken packing plant and somebody standing for 12 hours a day tossing packages into a pile. Then you replace that work with a robot.

”If your assumption is that you are not going to produce more, then yes, you will have a loss in jobs,” Furth said. But if the new technology adds to productivity, you could create jobs that are higher-skilled and higher-paying jobs than those being cut, he said.

That notion has national relevance, Furth said, given the United State’s chronic and enormous trade deficit. A growing chorus of economists blames that deficit for job losses in the United States. They argue that a rejuvenated manufacturing sector — and its exports — could help rebuild the American labor market.

Born in Georgia where his father was working in a textile mill, Furth has worked in manufacturing in Mexico, Argentina and Venezuela, places where trade imbalances have been painful.“

We really firmly believe that if the United State is going to get out of the mess we are in, we have to cut the trade deficit,” Furth said. “It is either cut our standard of living or become more productive.”

The use of robot technology might change the equation even in some factories producing commodities, Furth argued. “We can greatly increase the productivity of manufacturing,” he said. “And what matters is really not cost, it is productivity. How many shirts, say, can a person make?”

Among CAMotion customers are food company Cargill, printer Donnelly, process equipment-maker Novellus and Caterpillar, which makes construction, mining and industrial equipment.

The company’s pitch to customers is that higher productivity helps pay the up-front costs of the robot.

“Our objective is to give customers a payback that is a year, a year-and-a-half, no more than two years,” Furth said.

The payback for CAMotion has begun. While company officials do not disclose revenues, they say the company has been profitable in the first three quarters of this year. The company has 16 employees.

What matters most with a robot is its software, Furth said, which is why the Georgia Tech connection remains an important part of company strategy.

“If you make building a robot cheaper, you can put your money into making the robot smarter.”

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