Stanley, the company best known for its hardware and tools that includes the famous Stanley knife, has entered the materials handling market by taking over Cobotics, a company that produces intelligent assist devices (IADs).

The takeover was announced at ProMat 2003, the materials handling trade fair held in Chicago in February.

IADs are computer controlled, servo powered balancers that improve productivity in the lifting and manipulation of heavy parts in operations such as assembly lines or packaging. They also reduce strain on the operator.

The technology was developed out of research funded by the automotive industry. Cobotics – from ‘collaborative robotics’ – was established in 1997 by Edward Colgate and Michael Peshkin, two professors from Northwestern University in Illinois, USA, who had developed the technology during research funded by Ford and General Motors.

Colgate and Peshkin sold a majority share to outside investors in 2000 and by 2002 the company had reached the stage where its product had been proved but it lacked the organisation to grow the market.

Cobotics approached Stanley in October 2002 on the basis that not only was it a big company – sales of $2.6bn last year – but also on perceived common interests.

Says Cobotics sales and marketing vice president Steve Klostermeyer: “There’s a DC electric tool hanging next to every one of our systems.” For Cobotics, therefore, a company that made other tools used by its target audience represented an attractive fit. Stanley Air Tools, a division of Stanley, changed its name last year to Stanley Assembly Technologies. It was by now producing electric powered tools as well as air tools for such applications as tightening nuts and bolts. It had also adopted a corporate strategy of targeting industrial customers with technology and service. Stanley wants to reduce its dependence on the types of tools that are bought on the high street, in DIY stores or builders’ merchants, says Denise Nemchev, president of Stanley Assembly Technologies, one of eight product groups in the corporation.

“The addition of Cobotics’ technology, products and talent demonstrates our commitment to position Stanley as the market leader in intelligent and innovative solutions for the global assembly market,” said Nemchev.

Paul Decker, formerly president and CEO of Cobotics, said: “Strategically this is a terrific move for Cobotics. Having proven the market during the last several years, we can now leverage Stanley’s recognised brand and global distribution, support and manufacturing infrastructure to capitalise on the growing demand for IAD products.” Decker has left Cobotics since engineering its sale, but has been retained as a consultant to Stanley.

The price of the deal was not disclosed, nor was Cobotics’ annual turnover. It is unlikely to be a large enough deal to register heavily on the balance sheet of an organisation the size of Stanley. Although Cobotics describes itself as “the global market leader in the large fast-growing market for IADs”, it is in fact a small company with just 15 employees, active in a market which is probably in the low hundreds of units last year. It is, however, a market with significant potential for growth, especially as manufacturers come to recognise that semi-automation, as represented by IADs, is a more flexible option than full automation with robots, and a more productive option than conventional mechanical handling.