Kickstarter may seem like an unlikely place to find the next key performer for your enterprise, but a $1,599 robotic arm could bring automated production within the grasp of even the smallest businesses. Tweet This

Under development by a Chinese company, the Dobot M1 is touted as a low-cost robotic arm that sounds more like a Swiss Army knife than an industrial tool. With a series of interchangeable tool heads, the Dobot M1 can move, solder, sort, cut, engrave and even print 3-D materials in multiple colors. Its developers tout the ability to program the robotic arm using either an open programming interface or a simpler visual programming language that can run on a computer or mobile phone.

The robot arm can even be “taught” repetitive steps by positioning the robot in key positions that it then replicates. All of this means that with some patience and programming skill, a small enterprise could conceivably adapt the robotic arm to fill a specific need instead of rearranging its overall processes to accommodate its pre-programmed functionality.

What this can mean for small businesses in the manufacturing space is the robot’s 3-D printing, cutting, and engraving functions offer an inexpensive entry point to on-demand production. But the opportunities go beyond the factory floor.

By adding modules, the Dobot M1 gains even more powerful abilities, including a vision module that allows it to identify and sort materials on conveyor belts and a mobility module that can allow it to navigate a warehouse and deliver various small products and parts. Multiple arms can be networked and connected, and it’s even possible to develop completely new tool heads with even greater functionality. For example, its makers envision the Dobot M1 being used to automatically sign, add a notary-like stamp or seal, and then sort paperwork in any kind of office environment.

There’s certainly demand for the robotic arm, which is based on earlier prototypes developed with hobbyists in mind that were used to do things such as calligraphy and teaching robotic programming in the classroom. As of late December, nearly $350,000 had been pledged on Kickstarter for the production of the Dobot M1, which is slated for initial delivery in mid-2017.

Dobot’s prototype is only the latest of an array of small robots that are anticipated to transform small business. More than 1.2 million additional robots will be introduced in U.S. businesses over the next decade as costs continue to fall, according to a 2015 study by Boston Consulting Group.

In small business, that growth has been driven by a focus on “collaborative machines” – lower-cost robots designed to work under the supervision of humans instead of outright replacing them. Even at around $20,000 per unit, a fraction of the cost of traditional industrial robots, these lower-cost robotic systems are proving to be cost-effective ways for small businesses to lower manufacturing costs and speed the introduction of new products. With robots becoming available to even the smallest businesses on a hobbyist’s budget, the opportunities may soon be limitless.

Photo Credit: SteveAllenPhoto, Twenty20