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INNOVATION ECONOMY

Will lower-skilled workers get pushed out by robots?

Robots made by Harvest Automation do greenhouse work typically done by migrant workers.

Dina rudick/Globe Staff

Robots made by Harvest Automation do greenhouse work typically done by migrant workers.

As I drove south on a two-lane road in central Connecticut, raindrops began to blur my windshield, and I wondered if the farm workers I was scheduled to visit might be scurrying for shelter. My destination was Imperial Nurseries in Granby. It wasn’t the human workers I thought might be daunted by a little rain, but the prototype robots that were toiling in the nursery.

When I arrived in a distant part of the 350-acre spread, two squat robots were busily moving around young juniper shrubs in plastic pots. Charlie Grinnell, chief executive of Harvest Automation, the company that makes the machines, said, “If this turned into a downpour, we’d all be running for cover, but the robots would be fine.” Harvest was conducting a two-day field test of the robots at Imperial, which could eventually become a customer.

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Harvest and another Massachusetts company, Rethink Robotics, are both planning to launch their first products later this year. Both companies have founders who came out of iRobot, the maker of the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner and surveillance bots for the military. And both companies, no doubt, will stir up a new debate about the impact of automation on lower-skilled workers.

Harvest, based in Billerica, is designing a robot for a very specific purpose: toting around potted plants as they grow. In the winter, the plants are clustered together, and in the summer, they’re spread out with about a foot between them. When human workers do the job, they bend over to pick up the pots two at a time; the robots aren’t as fast, and they can only carry one.

But with a battery swap every few hours, the robots can work around the clock — even when overhead sprinklers are watering the plants. Greg Schaan, president of the nursery, can imagine other tasks that the bots might be able to do, such as dropping a few granules of fertilizer into each pot.

“We’re always trying to take our production costs down,” Schaan says, “and we see this as a potential solution.”

The workers at the nursery, he acknowledges, were curious about the bots when they showed up. “There’s some concern there,” he says.

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But Grinnell says that one issue growers grapple with is the liability of hiring seasonal workers who aren’t in the the country legally. He mentions that a nearby nursery was temporarily shut down last spring for that reason.

The robots rumble back and forth over plastic sheeting spread on the ground, and they get pretty dirty; occasionally, the laser sensors that help them locate the pots need to be cleaned off with a wet lens wipe. Grinnell says that the robots moved 1,800 pots the day before, with only one fumble. (As I watch them, one robot stops when it encounters a bit of loose plastic sheeting in front of it; the sheeting has to be staked down and the robot reset.) They can carry containers that weigh as much as 20 pounds.

So far, Harvest has raised a little more than $13 million in venture capital. The company plans to start shipping its first bots in August. A grower in Georgia has already purchased four of the test units, Grinnell says. The base price per bot: $30,000.

Rethink Robotics of Boston has a more ambitious vision than Harvest: It is designing a robot that will be able to perform a range of simple manufacturing tasks and be trained by assembly-line workers rather than programmed by specialists. The company, started by iRobot cofounder Rodney Brooks and led by Scott Eckert, a former Dell executive, believes its bot can help make manufacturing in America more cost competitive. (Until last week, Rethink was known as Heartland Robotics.) Rethink has raised $62 million in venture capital so far, some from Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, making it one of the best-capitalized robotics start-ups.

Rethink isn’t demonstrating its robot yet for outsiders, but it is one of a new breed of machines being called “co-robots,” or collaborative robots. “This is a robot that can work safely side-by-side with a person,” says Eckert. “The robot is doing simple tasks at a roughly human cadence, and the person is doing things that require decision-making or greater dexterity.”

Unlike Harvest’s roving plant carrier, Rethink’s robot will stay in one place.

The company isn’t yet talking about pricing, but several trade publications have reported that its robot will sell for less than $15,000. Eckert compares the company’s technology to the personal computer: an affordable device that “unleashes the productivity of a broad class of workers.”

Of course, “unleashing productivity” sounds one way if you own a business, and another if you work there. Jeannette Gordon, a program manager for the New England Farm Workers’ Council, which provides support services to migrant and seasonal workers, says if Harvest’s technology “were to take off like Google, it’s going to downsize the labor force. Computers have replaced so many workers, and this could go the same way.”

Schaan says that he operates Imperial Nurseries in a region where labor costs are especially high. Robots could “make us more efficient, and over time create more jobs as we’re able to grow the business,” he contends.

Rethink’s Eckert says robots would have the same effect in manufacturing. By making assembly-line workers more efficient, “we will keep jobs in this country,” he predicts, and perhaps allow some companies to bring their off-shore manufacturing operations back to the United States.

We’ll see how that plays out. But Massachusetts, an early adopter and tireless developer of new workplace technologies since the Industrial Revolution, is at least creating new jobs in the robotics industry. Harvest has 35 employees, and Rethink has more than 50. Both companies are hiring. (Humans.)

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com.
Follow him on Twitter @Scott.Kirsner.

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