Meet the Robot That Will Change Manufacturing

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There have been so many futuristic movies, cartoons and books that depict our future selves working with robots. Some of them, like The Jetsons, depict a workplace filled with robots and where a human worker, George, is only responsible for pressing a button over and over. Others, like The Matrix, depict worlds where robots have become self-aware and are enemies humanity.

So far, robotics hasn't reached the point of sentience. So we don't have to worry about robot overlords just yet. However, automation has had a huge impact on the modern workforce and is a fact of modern life. From self-serve ticketing kiosks in airports to self checkouts at grocery and department stores, technology has become a big part of how work gets done in today's world.

Until now, the use of robots in manufacturing has been limited to large, industrial machines. Although they perform a valuable function, they aren't flexible enough to replace actual workers. Because they require a huge investment and aren't able to deal with even slight changes in work flow, these manufacturing robots aren't a good choice for completing repetitive tasks. They present significant safety hazards and are required to be separated from the human workforce by cages or safety glass. Because of this, robotics hasn't been a viable option for most small manufacturers or warehouses.

Now, that is all changing. Meet Baxter, a new robot with common sense. Baxter is a low-cost robot that has the potential to change the face of manufacturing. Take a look at this video of him in action.

Created by Rethink Robotics, a Boston-based robotics company, Baxter is six feet tall and weighs 300 pounds. Instead of a head, Baxter has a screen that is surprisingly expressive. The screen has eyes and a mouth, allowing workers to get immediate feedback from Baxter. When he is working, his eyes look down at his task. When he makes a mistake, the screen changes to a frown. In fact, his screen is so expressive, workers can even know the precise moment that Baxter “sees” them, because his screen changes colors and he looks up. Not only is he user-friendly, Baxter is easy for workers to program and train to complete other tasks.

As if that wasn't enough, Baxter is also a very smart robot. Unlike traditional industrial robots, Baxter can be trained to do almost any task and doesn't require any additional safety measures. He was designed to work side-by-side with human workers and even has a feature that makes him slow down when a person enters his work space, allowing them to interrupt his work or teach him something new. He comes complete with enough intelligent programming that he can cope with changes to his work environment, which is a huge plus. For example, in a warehouse, a robot that pulls items off of a shelf is helpful, but if the item is not in the exact location, the robot will simply stand there and pull at thin air. Baxter, on the other hand, is able to adapt to these changes in circumstance.

The creators of Baxter, Rethink Robotics, are marketing him as a solution to outsourcing work to Asia. Because the robot costs only $22,000 and doesn't require benefits, it would be possible for companies to be competitive - without having to ship their operations off shore. The thought is that by making small manufacturers more efficient, the United States and Europe would be able to be more competitive, taking the edge away from countries that offer low-cost human labor.

In fact, Baxter is already working at Vanguard Plastics. According to the company, the people who work with him have no problem training him to complete various tasks, even though his primary duty is to take parts from one conveyor and place them on a table.

As you can imagine, there is some fear that this type of robotic worker could take away more jobs than it creates. However, Rodney Brooks, Baxter's designer and the creator of such robotic inventions as the Roomba vacuum cleaner, says that Baxter is designed to work beside a human employee, doing jobs to make the worker more efficient, rather than replacing them entirely.

So, is this the new face of work? According to the International Federation of Robotics, there are an estimated 1.1 million robots in the workforce today. Although a large part of them work in automotive manufacturing, that could change.

What do you think about this new robotic technology? Please share your thoughts in the comments.


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  • Melissa Kennedy
    Melissa Kennedy
    There certainly is a big fear that robots will eliminate human workers. However, it seems to me that the biggest losses would be to offshore labor forces. If a company could replace a portion of their workforce with robots, re-locating their company overseas wouldn't be cost effective. Let's face it, companies don't use low cost labor in developing countries because it's the best. They do it because it's cheap. With robots being cheaper, more companies will want to keep the plants here, meaning more jobs. With Baxter, he is so easy to train, one worker (without a degree) could work with several robots.
  • Ernest W
    Ernest W
    I think we are using too many robots as is.Robots should only be used when the job proves far too dangerous for a human worker. After all, if humans can't get decent paying jobs or opportunities, who's going to buy the manufactured products.Please note: I am a BIG fan of automation.
  • Edward H
    Edward H
    The thing I like about this most is that the option is viable for smaller companies.  If small companies are more competitive it makes for more people having the ability to have ownership of business.  Fewer small businesses could be worrying less about big busninesses replacing them.  I think that's good for everyone.
  • Alex J
    Alex J
    i think that this is the best idea ever
  • Donna A
    Donna A
    my concern is that not everyone wants to get a degree in engineering or, for that matter, can even afford to go to college. the employee the robot works alongside is still going to be somebody who will be required to have a BS. it's fascinating to me that people who have advanced degrees are so removed from the situations of those who aren't in the same educational echelon as they are. because given the current statistics on the increased productivity of US companies and how that has already translated to record profits, I fail to see why companies need to become even more "competitive." the real problem has been stagnation of worker wages in the face of this record productivity, not that companies aren't profitable~~ particularly the companies at which this technology is targeted. the more money companies now make, the more they stash away. it doesn't matter how productive workers have become.the sole point of these robotic technologies is to eliminate as many human workers as possible, end of discussion. why any American company sees this as a worthy pursuit fascinates me. we don't all have, nor will we all ever have, Masters degrees that insulate us from this reality of the typical working American.
  • John S
    John S
    In 1977 I signed up for tech collage to learn robotics,the waiting line was 2 yrs. changed my mind,but they have made progress
  • Jeffrey J
    Jeffrey J
    I think this sort of robot could help relieve a lot of repetitive work injuries such as carpal tunnel, etc. I think it might even be fun to work with.
  •  b p
    b p
    I am afraid it is the camels nose under the tent. The labor worker will not survive in the environment to which we are heading. It cannot be stopped, we will have to adapt the best we can.
  • Derek E
    Derek E
    Yep, very much appreciate this article; I am a recent graduate of an undergrad. program in mechatronics and see that the use of more AI based robotics will certainly make them more useful overall, in industry and elsewhere.
  • Travis C
    Travis C
    I would like to know more. I have a BS ITM.
  • Clarence H
    Clarence H
    What a breath of fresh air as long as they make the robots in the USA.
  • Andreas R
    Andreas R
    Baxter works 24 hours a day, non-stop, all year. No vacation, no medical insurance, no payroll tax, no benefits, no unions. One Baxter replaces three minimum wage employees. It's nonsense that Baxter won't replace humans. Of course he will. Has Rethink Robotics considered the political implications of displacing most of the workforce?
  • David M
    David M
    Great! So when can he cut my lawn? Not a rhetorical question...
  • Tamara T
    Tamara T
    I took a course with Ivy Tech on Robot Technician and got a certificate.  I think its awesome.  It was so much fun and I kinda felt like a scientist. LOL  I would love a position learning and working with a robot like this.
  • Robert A
    Robert A
    I don't understand the purpose for  this technology. If the purpose is to employ these robots, they're probably not going to purchase the products they're manufacturing!
  • Randy P
    Randy P
    Suppose this robot should malfunction or break down while on the job. How easy is it to move this 300 pound hunk of metal so that a human may replace it?
  • Adrian C
    Adrian C
    I was working at Chrysler in the 'body shop' spot welding bottom panels on the cars when they re-tooled with robots, decades ago, and hundreds of people, just like me, lost their jobs. I personally have no love for those steel and plastic Slave humans.

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