The C suite keeps getting more crowded. In recent years, the list of CXO has expanded to include the likes of Chief Innovation Officer, Chief Digital Officer and even Chief Disruption/IoT Officer. Now make room for the Chief Robotics Officer (CRO). By one estimate, more than 60 percent of manufacturing, logistics, healthcare, energy and agro-farming corporations could have a CRO by 2025.
“Companies are actively exploring the idea of having a Chief Robotics Officer or Chief Autonomy Officer,” says Magnus Egerstedt, executive director of the Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines (IRIM) in Atlanta, Ga. “Corporate board positions such as Director of Robotics are also being considered in this domain.”
What’s driving the nascent demand? The robotics field is exploding—thanks to a confluence of falling prices, improved performance, faster CPUs and easier application programming. Robots are becoming smaller, cheaper, more energy efficient and more dexterous. Together with artificial intelligence (AI) systems, robots are manufacturing and driving cars and trucks, making pizzas, cleaning floors, analyzing tumors, picking stocks and a doing a million other tasks as well as, or better than, humans.
The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) projects the market for robots will reach $67 billion by 2025. And, crucially, the group says that too few corporate leaders are thinking about how the next generation of robotics will affect their workforce, operations, business models and competitive position.
Why a CRO?
As robots become less expensive and more capable, experts say they’ll disrupt business processes in most industries—just as digitization is doing now. New competitors that embrace robotics will put pressure on incumbents, and CROs will play a key role in bringing innovation, focus, efficiency and agility to these enterprises, according to a widely cited scenario document by Remy Glaisner.
Deco Lighting, a green lighting technology manufacturer in Los Angeles, does not yet have a CRO, but President and co-founder Ben Pouladian sees the value of it.
“The CRO is almost like the CTO of tomorrow,” Pouladian says.
Deco Lighting is in the early stages of deploying high-performance Sawyer robots—a creation of Rethink Robotics—to reduce production time with precision sub-assembly on each line. The company hopes to reduce assembly time on its products from about an hour per unit to less than five minutes.
“The robotics revolution is happening now, even in our supply chain.” Pouladian says. “Our vendors in China are starting to use robots.”
While no companies have publicly talked about hiring a CRO, many industrial/manufacturing companies already have senior robotics-related roles, such as vice president of Advanced Automation and Robotics, or vice president of Advanced Engineering. However, these roles are technical, not strategic. Glaisner argues that CROs will hasten the “businessification” of the adolescent robotics industry. He predicts CROs will occupy a strategic role on a par with CIOs within the next five to eight years.
Robotics expert Taskin Padir says robotics and automation will have “brand new implications” for large, medium and small companies. These will include training the existing workforce with new skills such as supervising robots and developing strategies for integration of the robot workforce into the human workforce.
“It only makes sense if these strategies and operational aspects are represented at the C-level,” says Padir, an associate professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Northeastern University in Boston, Mass.
Egerstedt agrees, saying CROs will be key in capturing the opportunities presented by the robot revolution—opportunities that to date are still “somewhat vague.”
“Having a person responsible for pursuing these opportunities and ensuring that autonomy is integrated into the normal design process would be quite useful,” he says.
Automate or Evaporate
How should organizations respond to the rise of the machines?
BCG recommends leaders explicitly consider the capabilities and economics of robotics when making a broad range of strategic and operating decisions related to staffing levels, manufacturing footprint, facility location and size, and other aspects of the business model.
Padir invokes the dictum “automate or evaporate,” attributed to former General Electric CEO Jack Welch. He says a successful transition to robotics and automation requires identifying the processes and operations that will match the current technological readiness of robots.
“A CRO-like position can be impactful in companies not only to follow recent trends in the robotics industry in terms of new products and systems, but also to start developing short- and long-term adoption plans,” Padir says.
For organizations waiting for the right time to look into robotics, Pouladian says the time is now.
“They need to start educating themselves about how robots and robotics work, and to be aware of the changes that are coming down the pipeline,” he says. “They can’t keep their heads in the sand.”