New startup company Rethink Robotics, has designed and built a whole new kind of robot for use in the manufacturing sector, a robot called Baxtor that doesn't need custom code, can be trained by workers on the line and is still small and light enough to prevent injury to people working nearby. The Wall Street Journal, which calls the robot "cute" says it can do the mundane work that people are so loathe to perform while CNET says it's the most humanoid robot ever designed for the factory floor.
Huge companies have of course adopted robots as a way to cut costs. General Motors, Toyota and other heavy machinery oriented companies have all installed floor mounted robots that do everything from assembly to welding. What's missing though, are robots that do more human-like things, such as piece together small components such as dashboard switches and dials. This is because such work has traditionally been difficult to program, making the effort a financially draining proposal. To get around that, the Journal says, engineers at Rethink have done away with programming altogether, at least after the robot arrives at the factory. Instead, it's taught what to do by grasping its hands and pushing them to where they need to go, then causing them to grasp or let go. The robot learns by mimicking those actions. Also, instead of heavy steel arms, Baxter's are made of strong lightweight plastic.
CNET says the idea represents as paradigm shift that will almost certainly lead to robots being used in applications that are now filled by people in both large and small manufacturing plants. At a fraction of the cost of traditional manufacturing robots ($22,000) operations managers can afford to gamble to take a chance with Baxtor, and if the results are as expected, more applications will likely be tried.
The Journal says that despite initial fear that Baxtor will only cause higher unemployment for people who are no longer needed for certain jobs, the outlook is positive, as most assuredly Rethink Robots won't be the only company to make them, which will mean more jobs for people to build them. They also note that besides its obvious assets, Baxtor also sports an animated screen face that not only makes life a little less oppressive for fellow workers, but allows for communication between them and it that helps in making sure the robot knows what it's supposed to do.