Updated: 10/31/19 9:21 am
Local startup company Plus One Robotics opened its new facility at Port San Antonio Wednesday. The company that teaches robots to see is already eyeing more space next door. The company may need it as it looks to double its workforce in the next year.
Inside its 10,000 square foot facility, a blue industrial control arm quickly picked up objects and placed them in a bin. As a person approached, it stopped.
"If we're outside this area, it can go very quickly. But as a worker approaches and becomes in a dangerous area, it might slow down and eventually, in the red zone here, it will completely stop," said Jason Dent.
Safety is a fundamental necessity in the new world of co-botics, where humans and industrial robots share a space. A half dozen robots sat in the garage. Each was set up to demonstrate a different use case or product offering. One picks individual objects into a box. The one behind it was four times bigger and demonstrated unloading entire pallets of boxes.
Plus One sells seeing robots like these to work in warehouses picking, packing and sorting boxes for shipment.
The company's growth is fueled by the nation’s obsession with buying online, which necessitates more warehouses and more workers.
"They are unable to staff that labor today. The job market is really hot. Therefore they're looking for alternative ways to fulfill that labor need and automation is one of those ways," said Paul Hvaas, company co-founder and chief operating officer.
PlusOne launched its new Yonder program this fall. Yonder allows crew chiefs to remotely monitor multiple robots in far-flung client warehouses. For instance, if a box broke open, spilling a variety of shapes and sizes onto and off a conveyor belt, the crew chief can help address the new anomaly.
Yonder has been implemented in at least one warehouse, and the company recently hired its first crew chief, Grace Jimenez.
The program syncs with the company motto "Robots Work. Humans Rule."
It’s a motto CEO Erik Nieves highlighted to supporters ahead of Wednesday’s ribbon cutting.
“Because we acknowledge for all our talent, all our training, all our efforts, we can't make vision software as good as your eyes. Our algorithms don't come close to what a 3-year-old toddler does naturally,” he said.
Plus One was founded in 2016 when Nieves teamed up with Shawn Edwards and Paul Hvaas, who left Southwest Research Institute to start the company.
It's funding the current expansion with money netted in capital raises. Plus One has raised more than $10.5 million.
Company officials said the expansion is needed because Plus One is no longer in the dreaded startup realm known as Pilot Purgatory, where pilot projects are out there but gaining little or no traction.
"We're grateful that we've made it out of pilot purgatory in a couple of circumstances so far that will result in some impressive scaling at those customers," Hvaas said.
Businesses growing at the Port is very important for Southwest San Antonio, says District 4 Councilwoman Adriana Rocha-Garcia. The low-income area is not thought of as a tech hub outside of the Port's cyber security offerings. Rocha-Garcia said Plus One can help raise up local students and attract more women to the engineering and robotics field.
“They've already started reaching out to South San high school for instance, I was just at South San yesterday. And they're trying really to integrate themselves into the community, and I am super excited about that,” she said.
In August, Plus One moved into a new space around a half-mile from its old Port space. It's more than double the size which is good because they have more than doubled their staff over the past 18 months to around 28.
One reason they stayed at the Port was new facilities that can be easily expanded, and the spot next door was vacant.