A start-up company is building a new hub for robotics in Greater Peoria
Artificial intelligence is everywhere lately, as you’ve probably noticed. From the rapid rise of ChatGPT to the digital images of DALL-E2, recent months have seen game-changing advances in AI. Here in Greater Peoria, a startup company is building its world headquarters — and looking to position the region as a hub for AI, machine learning and robotics.
On Route 150 in rural Peoria County, the campus of Pringle Robotics will house their corporate offices, R&D and assembly for their various lines of robots. They are also looking to attract other innovative firms to the 47-acre property, creating a tech park on the outskirts of Peoria.
More than 9,000 Pringle robots have been deployed worldwide. As their footprint expands around the country, what was once science fiction is becoming reality. Just in the past year, public acceptance of robots in daily life has skyrocketed, according to Gerald Prall, Director of Sales for Pringle Robotics.
“It’s starting to get a lot of traction because it’s been proven out,” he explains. “In that curve of innovation, we’re not at the beginning. We’re starting to really increase as far as adoption. People know about it, they’re interested in it and they’re willing to try it. They’re seeing the ROI.”
From Restaurants to Hospitals and More
Today, one of Pringle’s robots can be found at Avanti’s on North Knoxville, helping the restaurant host and seat guests. Restaurants in Phoenix, Los Angeles and other large metro areas are following suit. Hotel groups are seeking help with room service delivery, while convenient stores and gyms are looking to Pringle’s floor cleaning bots for janitorial help.
“And then we have our outdoor delivery bots,” Prall adds. “That’s something new that we just started over on the Bradley [University] campus. If you go down there, you might see it running around — we just started testing it. So, delivering from the local restaurants to people that are within a one- or two-mile radius on the campus. So we’re going to start a pilot there and then a pilot down in Dallas.”
Pringle’s robots essentially do a handful of things: They move items from point A to point B; they guide people to different places; they clean floors; and they disinfect. Each bot is customized to the needs of a specific industry — like healthcare, for example.
“Let’s just say you want to deliver lab samples. Okay, so now how do we integrate with your elevators? How do we integrate with your workflows? So, somebody completes a lab sample, and then they need to send it to the storage area. Who’s responsible for receiving that? How is that entered in the system?” Prall explains.
“It’s those integrations into the SMS platforms, into their existing software, and then into their existing hardware, like elevators or automatic doors—things like that. It’s not just a robot. It’s a robotic solution.”
Healthcare presents an enormous opportunity for Pringle. They’re working closely with OSF HealthCare in Peoria, and they’re talking to Mayo Clinic and other hospital groups that face a critical shortage of workers. In addition to wayfinding and floor cleaning, meal deliveries are one way that Pringle’s bots can help hospitals use their staff more effectively.
“So you’re looking at a significant amount of time these people are spending just to do these simple deliveries when really what they should be doing — what you want them to be doing— is spending time with the patients: talking to the patients, talking to the family,” Prall explains.
“And then, like all of us when we go to the hospital or go to the doctor, we want to get out of there as soon as we can. So that discharge piece of it — speeding up that discharge, turning the rooms over faster. At the end of the day, they’re customers… the patients are customers. So improving that customer satisfaction.”
One of Pringle’s newest bots is highly interactive — with facial recognition, Alexa-like voice commands and an almost human-like presence. “It’s very configurable to hotel check-ins, or it could be a loyalty club through a casino. It could be a museum, and you want it to take you on a tour and stop at these different places and talk about the artwork or talk about the exhibits,” Prall notes. “Or even you can do a Zoom call. Say I’ve got some VIPs coming into the museum or into the hospital, and I want to give them a tour but I can’t be there — I have other commitments. Well, you can be there on the screen, talking to them and moving the robot yourself, or just having it on its preset tour, but you’re there, live, talking to these people.”
Attracting Top Talent
No matter how advanced its robots, Pringle needs humans to drive its innovations. In addition to creating partnerships with local universities, the company is seeking to attract high-level tech talent to Peoria, which can be a challenge, Prall explains.
“Typically the young people tend to want to go to, you know, the ‘sexy’ place, they want to go to Silicon Valley, or they want to go to Austin, Texas. The weather is always a tough one. They want to see a business that has something that’s going to have longevity if they’re going to commit to being here in person. They want to see, you know, having a nice place to work — the perks that go along with something like this.”
Peoria’s low cost of living is a major advantage, but it’s the work itself — AI and robotics — that is the key attraction for prospective employees. And with this area’s deep pool of manufacturing and engineering talent, Pringle Robotics founder and CEO Sudheer Sajja is firmly committed to Greater Peoria.
“It’s centrally located — anywhere in the United States, you can get to it, from a logistics standpoint. So that’s number one,” he explains. “And then when you look at all of the institutions… we have the talent from all of the schools here: Bradley University, ICC, all of those universities.”
But Sajja’s vision for Peoria’s tech-minded youth starts even before college. Each year, hundreds of middle and high school students participate in local robotics competitions. After they graduate, however, few choose to make a career out of it.
“So they acquire that skill and after that, they ditch that skill,” Sajja notes. “So my thought here is, you’ve acquired that skill. Now, how can you actually use that skill, apply that skill? And that skill can be applied in companies like us here. In reality, you’re getting the same Silicon Valley [experience] in the field of choice that you actually love to work with.”
Pringle Robotics wants to leverage this talent pool — and put Peoria on the map for advanced robotic solutions. “Away from the West Coast and the East Coast, we want to be the central hub for robotics. So on this tech campus, the three primary areas where we’ll be focusing on is AI, machine learning and robotics,” Sajja explains. “So if you’re touching any of those three things, we want you to be here. That’s why I am very committed to Peoria — to making sure this is a place that people call for anything related to robotics, and essentially become a robotics hub for us.
Besides the opportunity to work in a cutting-edge industry, Pringle offers a highly unusual amenity to its employees: horseback riding. Located on site, Pringle Stables offers riding lessons and hosts camps and special events. The unique combination of equestrian center and tech campus was never their intention. But the property was well suited for their needs, and the horse stable was integrated into their plans.
“You just look at the beauty of that stable and you want to retain that beauty,” Sajja says. “It just so happened to be there. And it’s well built and it’s beautiful. So why take it down and change it to something else?”
“We want to encourage people to work in Peoria,” Prall adds. “And part of that is having a cool place to work. So, all of the horses and everything are free to use for our employees and their families. We schedule times, if you want to take lessons, or if you just want to go on a ride. All that is part of the attraction of working at Pringle.”
A High-Tech Ecosystem
Pringle is not alone in its efforts to build up Greater Peoria as a hub for innovation. From AutonomouStuff to Veloxity Labs and beyond, the region is full of cutting-edge companies who are designing the future — and need top talent. As it builds out its campus, Pringle Robotics expects to double its workforce over the next 12 months. Despite a healthy competition for the best and brightest, a critical mass of tech workers benefits everyone in the region, Prall explains.
“You know, getting people to come to this town and saying, Okay, we see this as a future tech/innovative hub. There’s not just this one company. If I decide that I want to do something new, there’s other companies. So it gives you more incentive to move there. And I think we just have to be open to, you know, we’re not competing for this talent pool. We’re all trying to bring this talent pool into Peoria and [get them to] stay here. And the more options that they have, the better we’re all going to be off.”