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.
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!