Meet the market shapers: the balance of power between humans and machines
We invited Olga Motovilova, Co-Founder and COO for noonee AG, a Swiss start-up firm, to discuss the balance of power between humans and machines in identifying new paths of innovation.
How did you decide to set up your company and launch the Chairless Chair®?
Similarly to many other start-ups, our journey started within the walls and halls of academia at ETH Zurich. My business partner, CEO and co-Founder of noonee AG, Keith Gunura, was working there in the Bio-Inspired Robotics Lab on his childhood passion – exoskeletons. In one of his student jobs, he worked in a packaging factory, where he first encountered physical challenges of working while standing up. A couple of years later, he came up with the idea for the Chairless Chair® – a wearable posture support for production-line employees who otherwise have to stand up all day. The device, which weighs less than 4kg, walks everywhere with freedom to sit when you need to.
How do you characterise innovation in this new digital age?
Many researchers spend an inordinate amount of time perfecting a product, as opposed to focusing on their potential clients’ needs. Not surprisingly, the Chairless Chair® is not the first attempt to create a wearable posture support; however, for now, it is the only one that has made it to the production line. The move is a response to our philosophy which involves clients from the outset as early as possible. For an initial first phase, we shared our idea with target clients such as Audi and BMW even before making our first prototype. Back then, the only thing we had was a concept drawing. Somewhat to our surprise, we received invitations to present our idea in person and scheduled these presentations with just enough time for Keith to create the very first Chairless Chair® prototype, which initially looked really awkward and not comfortable at all.
This prototype, however, was the necessary first step to receive feedback from the potential customers and understand their needs. When they tried our prototypes in their factories, we got our first feedback from real users on real production lines. We learned about their intensive workload and interacted with them to design the most suitable product for them. Through a series of pilot tests, we came to understand that some of our more cutting-edge product innovations were not necessary. But rather, it is more important to make innovation as simple as possible if we want users to accept our new products.
CREATING A NEW MARKET
How did you open up new avenues of innovation?
Although the Chairless Chair® is part of the exoskeleton market, the development process of our company and products made us realise that we are actually creating a new market. More specifically, we started with exoskeletons but ended up creating wearable ergonomic mechatronics devices (WEMDs). Exoskeletons are typically used to increase physical strength in rehabilitation, for example, helping people lift heavy objects and run faster. We, on the other hand, are providing a wearable tool to enhance efficiency in work places by reducing musculoskeletal and absenteeism problems.
As we defined our focus, we also learned more about our clients. Our market consists of companies running production lines where employees assemble products and engage in repetitive tasks while standing. Hence, our clients are always interested in improved automation of their production lines.
If the rise of the machines is inevitable, what will it mean for workers in your industry?
While automation is creeping into many walks of life, we often underestimate the value of human input. Involving humans in production lines enhances flexibility in launching and customising new products based on clients’ needs, which allows us to capture a greater share of a differentiated-product market. It is important to maintain the balance between humans and machines. Judging from our observations, we believe humans will stay on in production lines for quite some time. Meanwhile, they will require an ever more comfortable and efficient work environment.
Ergonomics plays a huge role here, as a happy workforce typically leads to increased productivity and output quality. We like to think that, in the future, there will be more collaboration between humans with robots on production lines, though human capital will continue to persist overall. Such cobots (collaborative robots) are already penetrating the production lines of our clients. Innovation should not focus exclusively or abstractly on a vision of possible future trends: it should also focus on solving today’s real problems in our current, real world.
Noonee AG is in the process of launching the Chairless Chair®. We are fully focused on bringing our clients a whole range of WEMDs and reshaping Switzerland as the global epicentre of such devices.
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