Robotics startup Figure has landed its first customer, signing an agreement with BMW Manufacturing to deploy its general purpose robots at a US auto plant.
“We have designed the robot to be safe next to humans,” Brett Adcock, founder and CEO of Figure, told Reuters. “Working with BMW on automation in a manufacturing facility is a huge validator for us in the space.”
The challenge: As of 2022, there were nearly 4 million industrial robots in operation worldwide, and most of them are designed to complete just one specific task, over and over again — welding two pieces of metal together, for instance.
This can free humans from taking on those tedious — and potentially dangerous — jobs, but it also means manufacturers need to build or buy a new robot every time they find a new task they want to automate.
General purpose robots — ones that can do many tasks — would be far more useful, but developing a bot with anywhere near the versatility of a human worker has thus far proven out of reach.
What’s new? Figure thinks it has cracked the code — in March 2023, it unveiled Figure 01, a machine it said was “the world’s first commercially viable general purpose humanoid robot.”
The startup now has a customer for the robot, with BMW Manufacturing agreeing to deploy Figure 01s at its plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
“The use of general purpose robot solutions has the potential to make productivity more efficient, to support the growing demands of our consumers, and to enable our team to focus on the transformation ahead of us,” said Robert Engelhorn, BMW Manufacturing’s president and CEO.
The details: During the first phase of the agreement, Figure is going to assess BMW’s manufacturing processes and determine the initial use cases for its general purpose robots.
Adcock told Reuters that trained robots will then be integrated into various parts of the facility, including the body shop and warehouse, over the next 12-24 months. They’ll start with a small number of robots, but more could be deployed if Figure hits performance targets.
The big picture: Figure isn’t the only company gearing up to get its general purpose robots out of the robotics lab and into the workplace.
In August 2023, NASA-backed robotics company Apptronik unveiled Apollo, which it claims is the “most capable” humanoid robot ever — it plans to pilot production models of the robot in 2024, before making it commercially available in late-2024 or 2025.
Pittsburgh-based Agility Robotics opened a factory in September 2023 so that it can mass-produce its Digit robot, which is already being tested at Amazon warehouses, and while Tesla’s Optimus bot might not be ready to help manufacture cars yet, it is getting closer.
At this point, it seems like only a matter of time before general purpose robots are revolutionizing the world of work, freeing people to focus on tasks that only humans can do.
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