Already a subscriber? Log in
- Unparalleled business coverage of the Iowa City / Cedar Rapids corridor.
- Immediate access to subscriber-only content on our website.
- 52 issues per year delivered digitally, in print or both.
- Support locally owned and operated journalism.
Travis Mickelson was having a great time at a Career Expo in East Moline. The employee with Nestle Purina PetCare plant in Clinton, Iowa, was at the event in hopes of finding future workers for the Quad Cities area plant. Instead of just handing out brochures to potential future employees, he had a friend that helped attract a crowd to his table – a dog-like robot named Spot. Spot, developed by the company Boston Dynamics, does a variety of inspection jobs for the Clinton plant’s maintenance department. Mr. Mickelson used a laptop computer-like device to control Spot’s movements, much to the delight of the many jobseekers stopping by the Nestle Purina table to get a closer look at the robot. “He can see things before we can. … He’s around all the time. We really don’t even notice him anymore,” Mr. Mickelson said of Spot’s work at the pet food plant. Robots like Spot (and other robot devices made by other tech companies) have taken on a variety of big and small jobs across the world over the past few years. They have been used by utilities, oil, gas and construction companies. Their 3D laser scanning technology can capture and monitor progress on construction sites. Robots also have been used to inspect nuclear facilities. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Spot robots were used in a Boston hospital to greet patients. The robots have been used by police departments to inspect suspected bombs and patrol the streets, and by fire departments to search for victims after a disaster. In fact, in April, one of Boston Dynamics’ Spot robots was sent into the rubble of a collapsed parking garage in New York City to search for survivors because the scene was deemed too dangerous for humans. “Thank God we had the robotic dog that was able to go in the building. This is ideally what we talk about, not sending a human being inside a building that is unstable,” New York Mayor Eric Adams said at the time to the New York Post. Boston Dynamics – the maker of the Spot robots – has been busy touting the many uses of the technology in almost every sector of the business world. “A major part of technology adoption is ease of use. We want any customer to be able to have Spot working on site in just a few hours and start to generate value in that first week of deployment,” according to information from the company. On the local front, one of Boston Dynamics’ Spot robots has been hard at work since March at the Nestle Purina plant. The robot, which is now part of a pilot program for the Clinton plant, works in equipment maintenance. Spot has two jobs within the company: using its sensor to check for compressed air leaks in machines and using a thermo sensor to see if machinery is overheating. Once the robot makes its rounds at the company, Nestle Purina employees download the data to see what Spot has spotted in the plant. If Spot discovers machinery problems, repairs are made before small issues become big maintenance issues. Another advantage Spot brings to the table is that by doing the inspection work, it frees up maintenance workers at Nestle Purina for more time doing maintenance jobs – instead of inspections, said Roger Brecht, vice president of Digital Manufacturing for Nestle Purina. Mr. Brecht added that the company’s decision to put Spot to work began in June of 2022 when one of his friends directed him to a YouTube video of the Spot robots being made by Boston Dynamics. He called the company, had a demonstration set up at a Nestle Purina facility in St. Louis, and company officials liked what they saw. “We were very interested. We saw value,” said Mr. Brecht, who spoke to the QCBJ via Zoom while visiting the Clinton plant. The company then set up a pilot program with two Spot robots – one robot in an east coast Nestle Purina plant, and a Spot in Clinton. The eastern Iowa plant was selected because it has a “strong culture of change management. They are very welcoming,” Mr. Brecht said. Since coming to work at Clinton a few months ago, the Nestle Purina workers have been very open and welcoming of the new technology. “The team here has adopted Spot,” said Justin Wilkinson, the plant manager for Nestle Purina in Clinton. In fact, in many conversations about Spot, the robot is often humanized a bit and referred to as “he” instead of “it.” Mr. Brecht said that the manager of that East Coast plant that also is part of the pilot program refers to their Spot as a “her.” That manager, who is a woman, reports that their robot “is the first female Spot in the organization,” he added. Nestle Purina officials wouldn’t reveal how much they paid for their Spot robots. But Mr. Brecht did state the cost was “considerably less than I would have imagined.” Also, he added, because of the value the robots bring to the company, the investment in the technology will pay for itself in less than two years. The pilot program in the two Nestle Purina plants will eventually end, but the robots appear to have a long future in plant machinery inspection work. Mr. Brecht said the company has been very pleased with what it has seen from the robots. It appears likely Spots will be placed in every Nestle Purina pet food plant in North America by the end of next year, he added. But don’t expect Spot to spend all of its time in the Clinton plant. It will continue to make appearances with Nestle Purina workers at jobs fairs, at local schools and other events. “He has been a very big help at career fairs. People at schools always ask ‘How do we get to see Spot?’ … He does have a day job, but we do our best to get him out to see people,” said Mr. Wilkinson.
AT A GLANCE:
- Background: Available for purchase since 2020, Boston Dynamics’ four-legged robot dog, Spot, has been mostly deployed as an autonomous inspection and exploration tool.
- Cost: Boston Dynamics charged about $75,000 per robot in 2020. – ARS Technica
- Number of robots: According to Boston Dynamics, there now are more than 1,000 Spot robots in active use around the world in 35+ countries. It has been used in mining, utilities, oil, gas and construction companies as well as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and various police departments. – Washington Post
- Dimensions: The base robot weighs about 72 pounds with battery, is 19 inches wide and 43 inches long. – Boston Dynamics
- Competition: The Chinese tech firm Xiaomi has come up with its own robot dog called “CyberDog.” It sells for $1,540. Also, the Chinese tech firm Unitree sells its version of the robot, called “Go1,” for $2,700. – The Daily Mail
- The future: The autonomous robot market is expected to reach a valuation of more than $10.5 billion by 2028. – IOT World Today
- Updates to Spot: This summer, Boston Dynamics unveiled Spot 3.3, a collection of software and hardware updates that help improve the robot dog’s ability to perform critical industrial tasks. Some of the updates are behavioral enhancements, including the ability to detect moving objects such as people or forklifts. Spot also got a boost in its ability to walk safely in slippery environments with wet floors, and to catch itself when it slips. – Boston Dynamics
- AI updates: Spot now is equipped with ChatGPT and Google’s text-to-speech AI. The ultimate goal is to create a robot that can tell humans things like what the next robot’s mission involves or how much juice its battery has left. – Cybernews.com
- Opening doors: Spot can now open doors autonomously and react to moving obstacles. The hardware and software updates, part of wider upgrades aimed at boosting the bot’s autonomous inspection capabilities, were announced in June. – Boston Dynamics
- Life-saving jobs: This spring, the New York City Fire Department used Spot the robot to look for survivors after a parking garage collapse in that city. “Thank God we had the robotic dog that was able to go in the building. This is ideally what we talk about, not sending a human being inside a building that is unstable,” New York Mayor Eric Adams said. – New York Post
- Future robots: Kia, in collaboration with Boston Dynamics, has plans to launch a new robot in 2024. This development was disclosed in the South Korean automaker’s most recent sustainability report. – Tech Wire Asia