Realistic views of robots are usually centered on grappling arms hidden behind safety cages, but Rethink Robotics is working to change that. The Massachusetts-based company produces the Baxter line of robots shown above. These machines are designed to adapt to their local environment so that even unskilled labor can train them to do work. Perhaps equally important, they’re affordable and designed with simplicity in mind.
Factories that already have an extensive physical plant usually have to undergo a painful integration period to get their new robots to work with the current assembly line structure. Baxter works out of the box, and can get acclimated to a workshop in an hour or so. Human presence detectors mean that Baxter always knows that living employees are there. While that naturally means that the unit is safer than less-capable robots, Baxter is also far more capable of working alongside people.
Most robots have to be manipulated from a remote terminal. Baxter actually comes with a display panel and a navigator control. Since it resembles a face, the display is relatively easy for even the uninitiated to get used to. That’s a real bonus for work environments that have a large number of existing employees.
The most amazing aspect of this technology has nothing to do with feats of engineering, however. Baxter and other ‘intelligent’ robots help to keep manufacturing jobs in domestic facilities. Grinding and polishing machines are quickly being sent overseas. Few places can afford to keep blister packaging operations in North America. Products are sometimes even shipped overseas, put into thermoformed trays in a foreign country, and then imported back into the domestic marketplace.
New types of robots can do these jobs without the need for sending goods to foreign countries. That’s a real benefit for companies who have been debating offshoring their operations for some time. In fact, some analysts believe that new manufacturing technologies might even help bring jobs back to domestic marketplaces. While the media has often portrayed robots as devices that steal jobs away from human workers, they might ironically actually be creating plenty of new jobs right here at home.
There are plenty of other benefits that aren’t related to socio-political trends. Offshoring is actually a major environmental problem. Transportation services use a substantial amount of fuel. By keeping manufacturing jobs closer to home, companies can actually reduce their carbon footprint as well as costs. Some businesses might end up investing in robots for these reasons alone.
A revolution is starting to take place in manufacturing. Robots like Baxter are essentially consumer electronics. They can be expected to work out of the box. There’s no reason to assume that future robotic options will be any less dazzling in the near future. Hobbyist machines already started to appear on the shelves in the 1980s. It’s only a matter of time before anyone will be able to purchase his or her own robot. Even local operations will ultimately have the option of taking advantage of this technology.
Consider the plight of a local farm, for instance. Hiring someone to perform repetitive tasks can be very expensive, but a robot doesn’t require a salary. Baxter can’t be washed down, so it’s not necessarily useful for all food preparation jobs. However, even at this moment in time the unit is rated for some. Perhaps a simulated friendly face can actually save or improve industries such as manufacturing and agriculture in the near future.
Image Credit: Rethink Robotics