Polar Manufacturing has been making metal hinges, locks, and brackets in Chicago for over 100 years. While some of the machines in their manufacturing facilities date back to the 1950s, Polar started using a robot employee to meet rising product demand during a shortage of workers. The robot arm performs a simple job: lifting a piece of metal into a press where it is bent into a new shape. The robot, just like a human worker, gets paid for the hours it works, i.e., the rental fee. The robot is rented from a company called Formic and costs the equivalent of $8 per hour (the minimum wage of a human employee is about $15 per hour). The robot allows a human worker to do other, more-advanced tasks, and help increase output.

Polar hopes to have 25 robots on the line within the next five years. Anything that can help reduce labor needs is a big plus for companies right now as they continue to struggle during the pandemic with a shortage of laborers. Perhaps this robot-as-employee model could help bring automation to smaller businesses in a rapidly evolving economy. And, with this newer technology, these manufacturing companies are able to collect ample data to help improve their products and better serve their customers.

The International Federation of Robotics predicts that industrial robot leases will grow from 4,442 units in 2016 to 1.3 million in 2026. These numbers may increase even more as robots gradually become more capable due to advancement in artificial intelligence.