Smarter, Safer Robot Could Give U.S. Manufacturers Major Advantage
Company hopes its human-like robot will make it more competitive to do low-cost goods in the U.S.
BY JEFFREY BAUSCH
Boston-based company Rethink Robotics has unveiled a new “human-like” robot that they believe will help improve domestic production for U.S. manufacturers.
Robot is specially designed to be highly efficient at performing simple manufacturing tasks. (Via: technologyreview.com)
“It’s aimed at making it more competitive to do low-cost goods in the U.S., rather than outsourcing them to China,” company co-founder Rodney Brooks said. “That was my motivation.”
The robot, named “Baxter”, offers tremendous flexibility in terms of the range of production-related jobs it can perform.
Baxter has two arms — each equipped with a two-finger gripper — and can be used to do all sorts of repetitive tasks. When it comes to programming the bot to do the job, its face doubles as a computer screen to make setting things up quick and easy.
An up-close view of the Baxter robot.
“Ordinary factory workers can program it to do a task in a few minutes without any training themselves,” Brooks said. “The idea here is to bring to the factory floor the ease of use that we have been putting in our personal computers and our smart phones and iPads, which we haven’t brought to industrial equipment.”
A good fit for Baxter would be a manufacturer that needs to take items off a conveyor belt and pack them into boxes. To teach Baxter to recognize something, a worker needs only to hold the object in front of one of its cameras, which are located in the head, in the chest, and at the end of each arm. To teach it to pick something up, a worker simply guides the bot’s arms through the desired motion and selects from a number of preprogrammed actions using a pair of dial controls found in each forearm to specifically tell it what it to do.
It’s “smart” in that sense, though Brooks says it’s not “ultra-intelligent”; that is, it comes with “enough intelligence to be useful,” he said.
“It’s got these little pieces of common sense,” Brooks adds. “In a traditional industrial robot, you need to put in the common sense from scratch.”
Baxter requires no cage or barrier from its human coworkers: it moves too slowly and gently to cause any sort of physical harm, and an array of sonar sensors positioned around its head can detect human movement. What’s more, the bot also reacts to sudden change in force that occurs with an unexpected impact and responds by stopping its job instantly.
A better option (finally)
Baxter will cost a company $22,000 to purchase. This is a huge difference when compared to conventional industrial robots which, according to Brooks, cost anywhere between $50,000 and $100,000.
Adding to the financial headache are timing issues associated with ordering a more conventional industrial robot: it can take up to 18 weeks for delivery and require help from a systems integrator as well as a redesign of the factory floor.
Baxter, on the other hand, can be brought to the factory and less than an hour after delivery, be fully programmed and out on the floor doing actual work.
Keeping it in America
Orders have already been placed for Baxter and deliveries are expected to go out starting October 1. The bot’s being manufactured entirely in the States, with its components coming from contract manufacturers around the country.
When it comes to taking away jobs from human workers, Brooks says not to worry: “The robot doesn’t do the whole task — it does the dull repetitive ones, and lets the person do the higher-value stuff,” he said.
Check out video of Baxter in action below:
Check out video of Baxter in action below:
The introduction of Baxter comes at a good time, as manufacturers are starting to feel the financial pressure of rising labor costs in China. This has served as an encouragement to U.S. manufacturers to keep or otherwise return product operations back to the U.S.
Brooks adds that Baxter will be authorized for sale only in the U.S. and Canada at first, saying that the North American market is “so big that we can have explosive growth for years before we have to go elsewhere.”
To date, Rethink Robotics has raised over $62 million in venture capital from Sigma Partners, Charles River Ventures, Highland Capital Partners, Draper Fisher Jurveston and Bezos Expeditions, the personal investment company of Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. The company employs 70 full-time workers at its South Boston facility.
Learn more at rethinkrobotics.com ?
Story via: masshightech.com
Learn more about Jeff Bausch.