FoldiMate laundry robot. Credit: Debbie Cohen-Abravanel
Last week, attending the Our Crowd Summit, I felt engulfed by the breadth of innovation and minds gathered in Jerusalem’s International Convention Center. Jonathan Medved’s billion-dollar crowd-funding platform has launched some of Israel’s most promising mechatronic startups, including ReWalk, Intuition Robotics, Airobotics, and Argus Cyber Security. Household robotics, such as laundry robots, could yet be the next big thing.
Medved’s success is thanks to his infectious positivity and confidence that fosters collaboration across the venture ecosystem. In the words of the Summit’s concluding speaker, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, “Optimism is the engine of capitalism. … The people who make great things, if you look back, they were overconfident and optimistic — overconfident optimists.”
Following Dr. Kahneman’s remarks, I met the the self-assured entrepreneur of FoldiMate, Gal Rozov. The laundry robots startup made headlines this past January at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) demonstrating its novel approach to smart home automation.
This week, the founder shared with me the genesis of his idea: “I always felt that I should share the burden of the household chores, but I am the first to admit that I am not very good at chores and do not particularly enjoy them.”
Rozov confessed, “My wife didn’t approve of my laundry folding standards,” and then it hit him, “perhaps if there was a machine that could do the difficult part of the folding for me, I could help with this tiresome and hefty chore.”
He compared his invention with other other household appliances: “It would do the difficult part – the folding, just as the dishwasher does the cleaning.”
It’s a curious juxtaposition as the creator of KitchenAid’s most successful product, Josephine Cochran, unveiled the first working mechanical dishwasher at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. However, it took another 65 years before consumers started to install units in their homes. Instead, KitchenAid’s customers prior to its postwar sales boom consisted of hotels and large restaurants.
Laundry robots go commercial first
The home consumer market has been the ruin of many upstarts, Rozov’s fresh perspective, perhaps inspired by Cochran’s story, provides value lessons for budding robot entrepreneurs. Rather than positioning FoldiMate as a new appliance merchandised at electronic stories next to washers and dryers, the company is tackling the commercial laundry space first.
“Based on our calculations, according to the current U.S. population, we estimate that each day in the U.S. alone, over 120 million items are being folded manually in laundromats and shared laundry rooms,” Rlozov said. When asking him to quantify this amount, the executive projected that approximately 800,000 hours a day are spent folding clothes, translating to $5.8 million of hourly payroll at the existing minimum wage of $7.25.
According to Rozov, the billion-dollar market opportunity could be even higher. “We don’t know how many items are being folded in other businesses such as clothing stores, but it’s safe to assume that it is not less than laundromats, and probably a lot more,” he said.
“FoldiMate folds a laundry load of around 25 items in less than 5 minutes, and after recent tests where we tested humans folding alongside FoldiMate, we discovered that it folds at least twice as fast as a human,” gloated Rozov. This data translates into significant payroll savings and increased sales opportunities for clothing merchandisers, including such folding-obsessed stores as Gap Inc.
FoldiMate is not the first automatic clothing folding machine, but it is currently the only portable laundry robot priced under $1,000. For years, garment manufacturers have used industrial folders that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to pack apparel orders.
In 2018 at CES, Japanese startup Seven Dreamers, introduced Laundroid, a $16,000 intelligent apparel organizer that includes folding drawers for creased laundry to be pressed and stacked elegantly onto the closet’s shelves.
Unlike FoldiMate, which uses clips to bend and tuck fabrics into crisp pleats, the Asian version utilizes robotic arms and a database of over 250,000 images to scan, recognize, and fold into neat bundles. In reviewing Laundroid in 2018, Verge writer Dami Lee stated, “You’ll need a couple of hours for it to finish folding a load of laundry, as one T-shirt takes about 5–10 minutes to fold.”
With $90 million of capital invested in the company and a Panasonic engineering partnership, Seven Dreamers is not deterred, as it is on track to release a less expensive, more efficient version later this year to compete directly against FoldiMate.
Another approach to laundry robots
While Laundroid and FoldiMate tussle to conquer the $40 billion laundry robot market, many roboticists are taking a different approach. In 2017, researchers at the Carlos III University of Madrid, Spain demonstrated a humanoid, named TEO, capable of handling domestic ironing jobs. The lab programmed TEO with wrinkle detection computer vision technology to quickly press out the creases.
In the words of its creator, Dr. Juan Victores, “TEO is built to do what humans do as humans do it. We will have robots like TEO in our homes. It’s just a matter of who does it first.”
MIT gripper blooms
Dr. Victores’ prediction of cyborg-butlers took a step closer to reality this week with the announcement of the successful test of a new type of soft mechanical gripper at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Prof. Daniela Rus displayed the origami end effector to the press, showing how the flower-like appendage is able to pick up heavy objects of varying sizes and depths.
“By combining this foldable skeleton with the soft exterior, we get the best of both worlds,” she explained. “I’m excited about using such a robot hand to start grasping groceries.”
According to latest experiments by Dr. Rus, the usual arm is able to hoist 100 times its weight, promising to augment the heavy lifting for the world’s aging population.
While the sun is setting on the first generation of home robotics as exemplified with the shuttering of Jibo and Kuri, smart appliances are very much alive with the advancement of hardware like laundry robots and recent academic breakthroughs.
Rozov optimistically stated: “We don’t think we should compare FoldiMate to Jibo and Kuri. We feel that the world has been waiting for a viable solution to the folding problem for decades, and FoldiMate is the first natural step that solves the major part of the problem.”
His tenacity in pushing the industry forward is reminiscent of the perseverance of Cochran in the nineteenth century, who set out to free women from the bondage of dirty dishes by proclaiming, “If nobody else is going to invent a dish washing machine, I’ll do it myself!”
Even though they are separated by more than one hundred years, Cochran and Rozov fulfill Kahneman’s theory on the determination of entrepreneurs, “They take big risks because they underestimate how big the risks are.”
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