At InOrbit, most of our time is spent thinking about robots and how to make them perform better. But part of that vision includes robots and humans working together – without the human factor, robots are just a collection of metal and plastic parts. Here is another in a series of posts highlighting some of the outstanding humans on the InOrbit team, also known as InOrbiters. The posts aim to share details on some members of the team, what drove them to work here, and what they find most interesting about robotics and the development of the InOrbit platform.
Recently we sat down with Rick Rafey, our VP of Customer Success & Product Strategy. He lives in Santa Clara, Calif., and has been with InOrbit for a little under two years.
What exactly is Customer Success?
For me, Customer Success is making sure the customers are empowered to understand and make the best use of our platform and service as possible. That we meet their needs at a delightful level. We want them to feel excited to be using InOrbit and that they are getting clear value from it.
One of the reasons I like being in robotics, which I wasn’t before joining InOrbit, is that the application spaces are so wildly divergent and interesting. Just seeing how far things have evolved in our lifetime is also interesting, and I love the challenges. I embrace how the team sees a problem that a customer might have, because we’re still a startup and some things haven’t yet been road-tested at a deep level. Our team collaborates to understand how to address that issue as effectively as possible in a timeframe that meets the customer’s needs, being always mindful of advancing the product.
So what’s the best part of your job?
I really enjoy defining and refining product features that customers indicate they would value. We bring our whole product team (including design and engineering) together to align on a direction that advances the product, often well beyond what specific customers request, and customers appreciate the vision and the broader potential than what they originally proposed.
As a product evangelist, what’s your elevator pitch for InOrbit?
InOrbit lets people take complete control of their robot fleet with a much simpler interface than what they may be used to. All of those controls are available through APIs, so we can augment their engineering team instead of forcing robot manufacturers to build a lot of the base RobOps (Robot Operations) technologies themselves. A lot of detailed work and maintenance is generally involved in internal development. With InOrbit you can quickly get started and have operations continuously improve as the platform gets even better, without having to make sustained technical investment outside of the areas that really differentiate your solution.
You talk to a lot of different robotics companies, why do you think there’s such consternation around building vs buying necessary software?
There’s usually a consideration that buying may be of interest, but the questions I hear most often are, “What’s the right time? When do I need to have not just control and operations working? Are data insights, and ongoing optimization available? Do we need 10 robots? 50? 200?” Scaling is really integral, and it’s how all of our customers businesses’ will grow. Because we operate in several verticals, we’re seeing lots of companies use InOrbit at different stages to better serve their customers.
We’re also here to help robotics companies land customers. Robotics companies obviously can’t go into a store or a warehouse and say, “Look we’ve got a robot, we don’t know how to control it but we promise it does everything you want…” So they have to create that whole infrastructure at a core level upfront. Once they’ve done that though, they tend to be attached to it, even though it might not really meet their customer’s needs. They tend to overestimate the level of effort that it takes to get a new robot up and running, and minimize the effort it takes to actually build effective robot operations tools.
We’ve seen companies with smart Linux-savvy programmers building high-end tool sets that are completely inaccessible for the high school intern who may be tasked with troubleshooting autonomy exceptions, and is totally unsuitable for scaling to a bigger fleet. So my answer to the question of when manufacturers should start thinking about RobOps considerations is, ‘’as soon as possible.”
So what’s the InOrbit product approach?
We are a product-centric company that is extremely customer focused. Every time we develop a new feature, we pull existing and potential customers into the conversation. A lot of people want something to work ‘out of the box’, and some of my favorite moments come when we show them the really cool design for that feature they need that we already have, just waiting to be built. We’re willing to work with customers to validate the approaches we take and adapt them based on their feedback. Customers don’t just have to take what we give them, but can be a partner in getting to something great.
Let’s shift to your take on the future of the robotics space. How do you see the current necessity for a human-in-the-loop to evolve?
It’s really interesting. People have seen shows like The Jetsons, or know Tesla cars that can be summoned from blocks away, and they have a very high expectation of robots succeeding. Manufacturers don’t go out of their way to talk about the failures because they don’t want it to look bad for the industry. But the reality is that in almost every case, robots are still quite primitive, and if they don’t fail 10 times a day, they still fail typically two or three times a day.
The solution to this is not to have five operators troubleshoot every robot, but to have less people with the right tools. It doesn’t matter if you have people in-the-loop if you only need them when there’s a problem. As the robots get better there are fewer of those problems, but there still will be problems. Without a clean, elegant way to cost-effectively have those people remotely intervene, somebody on the site has to handle issues. Robots are inevitable, and they will be successful, but that success is predicated on them working with very close to 100% reliability, and humans are going to need to help with that for at least a decade, and probably beyond.
Let’s wrap up with something fun, what’s your favorite robot from books, TV, or film?
I like RoboCop. That’s one of my favorite movies of all time and I love the way they captured that future. In terms of real robots, the Boston Dynamics robots are incredibly badass. Like many robotics companies, they are still finding their market, but they’re really advancing what robots can do in a way that intrigues people about that potential.
Thanks to Rick for taking the time to chat. It was a great conversation, and a chance to get some industry insights from a robotics and product expert. Rick Rafey is InOrbit’s VP of Customer Success & Product Strategy. Connect with him, and the InOrbit team here. InOrbit is always looking for new InOrbiters. If you’d like to join our team, check out the latest job openings at InOrbit.
* Please note, this interview has been edited for length and clarity.