Living with Robots — and their support organizations


For some years now I have had the great pleasure of watching a little robot mow my grass. Out here in rural Canada all the retirees make great ceremony of driving their rider mowers around for hours each week — radio headphones on, drink in the holder, hot sun blazing overhead. But being an unrepentant technologist I was sure there had to be a better way. I am still hopeful although my experience to date has not been encouraging.

At the time I started down this dark road there were two vendors selling in the North American market — Robomower by ‘Friendly Robotics’ (Israel) and ‘Evolution’ from Zuccetta (Italy) [now Kyoda America]. We have just under an acre to mow and at the time my wife worked shift so quiet operation was essential. The Robomower was massive, like a tank, as noisy as a conventional mower. The Evolution was tiny in comparison and very quiet. Their mowing performance seemed comparable except that the Robomower wanted to cut in straight lines and the Evolution used a random mix of bouncing around an area and spiraling through thick grass. Neither was inexpensive — comparable to a good rider mower, Interestingly, the deciding factor for me was how they handled unexpected obstacles — when following the guide wire back to the barn for recharge, no obstructions should be encountered. Seems reasonable until real life intervenes —  a dog bone, laundry basket, etc. The Robomower backs up and hits the obstruction, and keeps doing this until the obstruction moves out of the way. The Evolution backs up a bit, then makes a wide arc around the obstruction and continues on its way. Would it be reading too much into this to say that there is an expression of national character in this? I don’t know, but it was interesting. I bought the Evolution.

In the six years that this thing has been cutting our grass I have had quite an education in the technology. Unlike our experience with Roomba — which we abandoned after several more advanced models were purchased over several years, but when the vendor recommended that we field strip and clean the unit before every use, we said — ‘Enought!’. No, the lawnmower has been a tireless worker — I have often remarked that I have had few pieces of technology over the decades that just did its job, no muss, no fuss. All it asked is that I kept the cutting blade sharp (a few minutes on the grindstone) and scrape off the accumulated grass on the underside every so often. The robot trundles into its charging shed by itself and paces its duty cycle based on how fast the grass is growing. In the Spring that means it is out almost all the time — say two four hour stints a day. And did I mention that the electricity use is almost trivial? As the Summer wears on and the grass dries out this shifts to being out every few days. It really is wonderful — this is what ‘autonomous’ really means.

But there is a dark side to this. The electric motors that run this little marvel are, how do I say it delicately, not really up to the task. Over the last six years I have replaced at least 3 wheel motors and two blade motors. Two years ago I allowed myself to be talked into accepting a complete refurb that supposedly provided upgraded (read more durable) motors for longer service life. But my experience and what I read on the web suggests that while the wheel motors may be better the blade motor is decidedly worse. The original blade motor went four years without a hiccup. The new one lasted less than two years and is completely worn out — fortunately this was still inside the warranty period, just.

Now in years past I used to run a chemical plant — lots of pumps, motors, very fancy seals and other exotica. The trick to maintaining a smooth operation was to keep a local supply on hand of the stuff that tended to break, rather than panicking when it did and doing a war dance around the supplier to get the plant back up. But the folks I have been dealing with seem to have a different philosophy. Every problem is a ‘de novo’ experience — there is no history, not even for my unit. So when a wear problem arises they will gradually get around to providing a replacement, which may mean waiting for weeks for ‘special order’ parts. After all, it is my grass that is rapidly growing, not theirs. So why should they inconvenience themselves to get my robot working faster?

Now for a machine that just does its job as nicely as this one does I really have no problem with wearable components having a finite service life. After all, the usual tradeoff with fast wearing parts is that they tend to be quieter — and replacing the worn parts ‘should’ be cheaper and quicker. But only if you know…and there are no published service documents for this thing. Even so, a smart vendor would offer an annual service to take the thing in at the end of the mowing season, tear it down, clean it, lube it and replace any worn parts. Then ship it back before the start of the next season. But no, they deny that there are any issues, so when it craps out it is usually in the peak mowing season — so the impact is maximized for every day of downtime. And trust me, there are a lot of those days. For example, when the mower was rebuilt, a job that was arranged months in advance, the replacement parts were not ordered until the thing was sitting on their workbench — so there were weeks of delay while the parts came in via mule train and canoe from distant parts. We cut the lawn manually during this — so much for carefully laid plans.

I am sure their thoughts are along the lines of ‘how do we maximize revenue for every support case’ and ‘how can we minimize our capital costs of maintaining spare parts’? In the short term I am sure they are successful. In the long term, though, they are contributing to an impression that the technology is just too difficult and fragile for wide adoption, Ask my wife — she is convinced from watching the support response horror stories that this stuff is way too hard for mere mortals, So while people may ask us about the little red machine that keeps our lawn looking so beautiful, we no longer recommend it to anyone. The technology is great, but so far the short-shortsightedness of the vendors means that only the dedicated masochist can get the benefits and that it will be a long time before this comes for wide adoption. And think of the money that these guys will not be making!

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