Google’s Driverless Cars Will Take to the Road

September 28, 2012

It’s a different kind of automotive robot. This week California became one of the few states to pioneer the path of the autonomous car. CBS does a short feature on the California governor’s decision.

Read the New York Times article “With a Push From Google, California Legalizes Driverless Cars” here. Will you be one of the first to ride an autonomous car off the dealership lot?


The Return of the New American Factory

September 24, 2012

There has been a lot of buzz recently about reshoring and the return of manufacturing. But what does that really mean? After so many years of a disjointed supply chain, what will it look like to have American companies back on American soil? How will recent developments in automation shape the return of the factory?

Why manufacturing matters for America

By Willy Shih and Gary Pisano

We believe that the most important reason to bring manufacturing back and grow it in this country is that the ability to manufacture underpins our ability to innovate in many fields. When manufacturing process technology is not yet mature, or when products are tightly integrated systems that are not easily modularized, a great deal of the work in “industrializing” a product – that is getting it ready and putting it into volume production – is high value-added knowledge work that supports future innovation in the field.

A great example is Intel Corporation’s latest generation of “Ivy Bridge” family of microprocessors. Intel has invested tens of billions of dollars in its factories in Oregon, Arizona, and New Mexico so that they are able to produce the most advanced semiconductors. In order to produce its Ivy Bridge chips in the latest generation technology, it had to maintain a tight loop between the engineering team designing the chips and the engineers designing the manufacturing process. Understanding how to make a product in volume is very different from being able to build a one-of-a-kind prototype, and the process that engineers and workers go through is an important part of innovation. Many in the industry say that Intel has a two year lead on its competition as a result.

Read the full article at CNN. What do you see the future of American manufacturing looking like? What sort of expectations do you hold for reshoring efforts, both on the corporate-wide and factory floor levels?

CNBC Interview with Rodney Brooks, Rethink Robotics

September 21, 2012

We’ve had fun getting to know Baxter this week, reading all the new articles and watching him at work. Here’s another video, an interview on CNBC with Rethink Robotics founder and chairman Rodney Brooks — watch it here.

We’re pleased to have two upcoming opportunities to work with Rodney and Rethink Robotics. Rethink Robotics will showcase Baxter at the 2013 Automate Show this upcoming January in Chicago. Rodney Brooks is a featured speaker at the RIA Robotics Industry Forum in Orlando in February.

Meet Baxter, Manufacturing’s New Robot Wonder

September 19, 2012

Meet Baxter, the new robot from Rethink Robotics, heralded to change American manufacturing. In comparison with traditional manufacturing robots, he might appear to be a light weight. But it’s in Baxter’s differences from traditional robotics that his unique potential shines through.

Inexpensive, easy to train, and safe, Baxter is a fresh face for productivity. But perhaps what is most impressive about Baxter is his accessibility to companies of all sizes. Don’t have a lot of floor space? Can’t afford a $200,000 robot? Unsure if your company can handle the technical demands of robotics? These are just some of the concerns that keep small and medium sized businesses from automating. But with the arrival of Baxter, all that might be about to change.

Smarter Robots, With No Pesky Uprisings
by Brad Stone

With five cameras, a sonar sensor that detects motion 360 degrees around the robot, and enough intelligence to learn new tasks within an hour, Baxter is designed to work safely alongside humans and do simple jobs like picking items off a conveyor belt. At $22,000 a unit, it is also cheap enough so that, performing menial labor for three years’ worth of eight-hour shifts, it functions as the equivalent of a $4-an-hour worker. “We are spending hundreds of billions of dollars doing this kind of work in China,” says Brooks. “We want companies to spend that here, in a way that lets American workers be way more productive.”

Traditional assembly-line robots, which can cost up to $200,000 and then much more for custom software, are fast and dexterous, but dumb. They do a few things extremely well but require carefully structured environments. Most wouldn’t know if a human wandered close by, so they are often isolated in cages away from employees. Baxter, though, sits on a four-wheel gurney and can be set down just about anywhere on a factory floor. Its eyes are on a swiveling computer screen and greet any worker that approaches.

To teach Baxter a new job, a human grabs its arms, simulates the desired task, and presses a button to program in the pattern. When the robot doesn’t understand what a person is trying to tell it during training, it looks up with a confused expression. Part of the original idea was that Baxter would be so easy for even unskilled workers to train that Rethink wouldn’t have to produce a manual. It ultimately did print one, but Brooks hopes no one uses it.

Read the full Businessweek article here.

A Robot With a Reassuring Touch
by John Markoff

Here in a brick factory that was once one of the first electrified manufacturing sites in New England, Rodney A. Brooks, the legendary roboticist who is Rethink’s founder, proves its safety by placing his head in the path of Baxter’s arm while it moves objects on an assembly line.

The arm senses his head and abruptly stops moving with a soft clunk. Dr. Brooks, unfazed, points out that the arm is what roboticists call “compliant”: intended to sense unexpected obstacles and adjust itself accordingly.

The $22,000 robot that Rethink will begin selling in October is the clearest evidence yet that robotics is more than a laboratory curiosity or a tool only for large companies with vast amounts of capital. The company is betting it can broaden the market for robots by selling an inexpensive machine that can collaborate with human workers, the way the computer industry took off in the 1980s when the prices of PCs fell sharply and people without programming experience could start using them right out of the box.

“It feels like a true Macintosh moment for the robot world,” said Tony Fadell, the former Apple executive who oversaw the development of the iPod and the iPhone.

Read the full New York Times article here.

Want a chance to meet Baxter and see him in action? Rethink Robotics will be exhibiting at Automate 2013. Show floor admission is free, giving you the opportunity to find the automation solution that’s right for you.

Rodney Brooks, founder and chairman of Rethink Robotics, is a featured speaker for the 2013 Robotics Industry Forum. We’re very excited to hear his presentation, Innovation in Manufacturing Robots, considering his powerful contributions to the industry. Register for this executive members-only conference today!

DARPA Produces Super-Strength Robotic Dog

September 14, 2012

We don’t think we’ll let it sit on our lap any time soon, but we wouldn’t mind taking this dog for a walk. Boston Dynamics and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) have created a robotic dog that, according to the BBC, can carry up to 400 lb and walk non-stop for 20 miles.

Read the BBC write up here.


Robot Safety Trends in Automotive

September 12, 2012

by Jeff Fryman , Director, Standards Development
Robotic Industries Association
Posted 09/10/2012

Jeff Fryman, Director, Standards DevelopmentThere are vibrant new activities related to industrial safety in robot applications around the country today, and none more so than in the automotive industry.  Recovering from the last recession, our nation’s industries are stronger and more competitive than ever, and much of that competitiveness can be credited to new and innovative applications using industrial robots safely.  The auto industry has been a leader in applying robots to save time, improve processes and assure consistent quality of products; and continues to be a leader in assuring the safety of their workers.

A key word in manufacturing today is “lean”; a reduction of waste – wasted time, wasted energy, wasted effort and wasted cost.  Eliminating these wastes means thinking “out of the box”.  Elimination of fixturing (fixed stands and clamps) is probably the biggest trend toward lean manufacturing.  Taking time, effort, and cost out of manufacturing processes is the key to lean manufacturing and competitiveness.  We refer to robot applications as “flexible” automation, and that can mean flexibility in design, capabilities and not just motion.  Designing lean robot applications is important to achieving innovative solutions to ordinary manufacturing tasks, and with new robot features this can be done while also achieving enhanced worker safety.

Let’s look at an “old design” application; maybe a spot welding assembly process.  Each step in the flow has a fixture for each part; and if I want to run different parts, each has its own fixture.  After the initial parts are loaded to the fixture, a robot carrying a spot welding gun moves in and makes the welds.  To move to the next step in the process the part is unloaded from the fixture, placed on a conveyor and moved to the next position where it is again loaded to a fixture.  Maybe at this step a robot picks the part off the conveyor and loads it to the fixture.  Another robot picks up a part from another loading fixture and adds it to the assembly.  Then a robot carrying a spot welding gun moves in and makes more welds.  At this point the completed assembly is unloaded and racked.

Now let’s analyze this application from a “lean” perspective.  Where are there wastes in this example that can possibly be eliminated?  This design limited the process to the specific part being worked on, or a possible compromise of the fixturing to accommodate multiple parts.  Transferring parts entailed additional motions and a conveyor of some type.  Three fixtures and clamps to hold parts in place while the robot slung the heavy weld gun and positioned for each weld.  This also requires a large capacity robot to handle the weight and bulk of the weld gun.

So what would a new “lean” method look like?  A robot with light weight end-effector designed to accommodate variations in parts is loaded and moves into position at a fixed weld stand, moving and properly positioning the part for each programmed weld.  It then presents the part to another robot that has already picked up an additional part to be added to the assembly from a bin using machine vision guidance.  This robot than takes the assembly and presents it to a robot with a servo-controlled spot welding gun, and then both robots move in coordinated motion to position the part for each of multiple complex welds.  The part is then placed in a rack by the robot.

Where are the savings?  Direct transfer of the part between robots has eliminated the conveyor and one fixture completely.  The vision guided bin-picking application has totally eliminated another fixture, and the end-of-arm tooling is lighter weight and floor space can be saved without fixed location fixtures.  The stationary stand and use of servo-controlled spot welding guns allows for lighter capacity robots to be used in the application, hopefully saving costs as well.

This application can be done today, within the guidelines of the current robot safety standard.  The soon to be released new robot safety standard takes this ability to innovate even further!

New safety features available with new robots (not existing ones) will allow for the reduction of robot application footprints on the order of 30%.  How would you like to have 30% more floor space in your existing facility?  And there is more – the re-introduction of man-in-the-loop production techniques; where in the example above the operator directly loads the end-effector during the robot operation.

To learn more about these exciting developments, join us for the National Robot Safety Conference XXIV, September 24 – 26 in Indianapolis, Indiana. We will delve into these and many other robot and machine safety topics during 3 days of outstanding workshops, conference sessions, tabletop exhibits and more.  Complete information on the conference can be found at or call RIA at 734/994-6088.

NRSC 12 - Register Now

Be safe, and I hope to see you at this year’s robot safety conference in Indy later this month!

Women a Growing Demographic in Manufacturing

September 10, 2012

Despite great advances made in the workplace for equal pay and equal opportunities despite gender, there are still places where breaking into the boys’ club can be difficult. You don’t typically find women on the factory floor — but perhaps that’s about to change. CNN recently published an article about how developing automation technology and the growing manufacturing education system combine to make a career in manufacturing more accessible to women.

Manufacturing: Not just a man’s job
By Parija Kavilanz

Tom and Diana Peters — the husband-wife team that runs Symbol Job Training — are on a mission of their own. They want to enroll more women students in their school.

“The stereotype is that factory jobs require a lot of heavy lifting,” said Diana. “It’s the complete opposite. So much of manufacturing today is high-tech and computerized. Women can do these jobs and be very successful.”

The Peters’ trade school was formerly a family-run tool-and-die shop before Diana, a company executive, bought it and transformed it into a manufacturing trade school in 2005.

“We saw the need to establish a vocational school because of a skilled labor shortage in the area,” she said.

Enrollment at Symbol, which specializes in teaching computer-aided machining, known as CNC, has since quadrupled to 140 students a year. The school recently moved to a larger facility.

Symbol currently has about a dozen female students, a level that Tom calls a “spike” from years past when the school had none.

Read the full article at CNNmoney. What sort of challenges have you seen for women in manufacturing and automation? How have you seen them being addressed?