In 2011 sales of robots reached 166,028 units, an increase of 38% with the automotive industry the biggest purchaser. That year it was estimated that the world’s operational robot population reached somewhere between 1,153,000 and 1,400,000. That number was expected to grow by 180,000 in 2012, and increase to over 200,000 per year by 2015.
The industrial robots in these statistics cost six figures. But a Boston manufacturer, Rethink Robotics, has introduced a robot capable of performing a wide variety of common, repetitive tasks in the workplace at a fraction of the cost of previous manufacturers. Weighing 75 kilograms (165 pounds), standing 1.8 meters (6 feet), and known as Baxter, this is the first of a new generation of industrial robots that exhibits adaptive skills. Baxter, in a couple of minutes, can be programmed by almost anyone to accomplish new tasks. And unlike other industrial robots Baxter is very affordable at $22,000 U.S.
This is truly disruptive technology. Baxter is designed to do small-scale repetitive applications. Baxter can work beside humans in a facility without extra safeguards. Baxter interacts with humans through its LCD display which features eyes and eyebrows that express emotion. That same graphical display serves as an interactive console for human coworkers to reprogram Baxter. By showing Baxter what to do through manipulating his arms, a human worker can train it to do a new task. No software engineers need apply.
Out-of-the-box Baxter is pre-programmed to perform a wide range of manufacturing jobs including operating machines, materials handling, production line loading, unloading, assembly, finishing, inspecting, testing and sorting. In less than an hour Baxter can be on the job. And Baxter automatically alters its behaviour in response to any environmental change such as production line speed ups or variations in parts placement on an assembly line. Baxter can also adjust when a part is missed or dropped, or the assembly line surface height changes.
Baxter has no sharp edges or grippers that can inadvertently trap a human coworker. Baxter’s arms move fluidly and easily. Packed with sensors, Baxter can detect human presence nearby and avoid contact or reduce the force of any inadvertent collision.
Baxter as you can see in the image below comes with a mobile pedestal that allows it to be moved easily to different locations in a manufacturing facility. Its two interchangeable grippers can be switched in minutes. The electric parallel gripper features interchangeable fingers of different lengths with multiple grasp widths. The vacuum cup gripper comes with variable cup sizes and is used for hard-to-grasp objects.
In addition Baxter works with manufacturer enhancements from third parties and in 2013 will include a software development kit so users and re-marketers can reprogram the robot for unique tasks.
Baxter’s built-in smarts allow it to work in a number of industries including:
- rubber and plastics
- metal fabrication
- automotive assembly
- food processing
- consumer goods
Will deployment of Baxter in small manufacturing cost hundreds of thousands of jobs? Not according to Rodney Brooks, Chairman and Chief Technology Officer at Rethink Robotics. What it has the potential to do is lower the cost of small manufacturing so that it can be competitive with manufacturing overseas. That can impact hundreds of thousands of companies worldwide. And robots like Baxter will make an increasingly smaller workforce more productive as our population ages and the current generation of Baby Boom workers retire.