September 18, 2012      

BBJ & WSJ: Intended to support a rebirth of domestic production for U.S. manufacturers, says its creator, Rodney Brooks, Baxter is “aimed at making it more competitive to do low-cost goods in the U.S., rather than outsourcing them to China. That was my motivation.”

Rethink hopes that Baxter will accomplish that rather large chore due to its comparatively low cost ($22,000 each) and its flexibility at assisting on a wide range of production-related and materials handling jobs.

“Baxter is also far cheaper and easier to incorporate into production in a factory than currently available industrial robots,” he said. “A conventional industrial robot will cost $50,000 to $100,000, take 18 weeks for delivery and require help from a systems integrator as well as a redesign of the factory floor,” he added.

By contrast, “we roll up to a factory, and 45 minutes after we arrive, the robot is on the floor doing useful work.”

Plus, the big guy with a wingspan of nine feet is a pleasant sort. “The sensation that Baxter conveys is not creepy, but benign,” reports John Markoff of the New York Times, “perhaps even disarmingly friendly. And that is intentional.” Especially so if Baxter is to become the “co-worker” in the workplace that its creators intend.

Target segment

The target segment for Baxter are small-scale manufacturers, of which there are 300,000 in the U.S., Brooks said.


“We are trying to put robots into places that would normally have robots, so we’re aiming after small customers,” he said. “But it turns out large companies are coming to us–they’ve heard rumors and shown up.”

The introduction of the new robot comes as labor costs in China continue to rise, which has served as an encouragement to U.S. manufacturers to keep–or return–production operations to the states.

Brooks said he hasn’t viewed China as a stable place to do manufacturing over the long term. “I realized the labor costs were going to go up in China –that was part of the pitch to the VCs when I started the company and first raised money,” he said.

“The $22,000 robot that Rethink will begin selling in October, reports Markoff, “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.

Baxter will come equipped with a library of simple tasks, or behaviors–for example, a “common sense” capability to recognize it must have an object in its hand before it can move and release it.”

Brooks said the robot will only be certified for sale in the U.S. and Canada at first, and that the market is “so big that we can have explosive growth for years before we have to go elsewhere.”

The hope, he noted, is that Baxter will lead to a net increase in American jobs by allowing operations to stay in or return to the U.S. “The robot doesn’t do the whole task–it does the dull repetitive ones, and lets the person do the higher-value stuff,” Brooks said.

One analogy, he said, is around the PC and its impact on the job of the office worker. “The PC didn’t replace the office worker. The PC was used by office workers but changed the tasks they did and moved them up the value chain,” he said.

Baxter’s basic workload: repetitive tasks

What kind of work will Baxter and its ilk perform? Rethink, which is manufacturing Baxter in New Hampshire, has secretly tested prototypes at a handful of small companies around the country where manufacturing and assembly involve repetitive tasks. It estimates that the robots can work for the equivalent of about $4 an hour.

“It fit in with our stable of equipment and augmented the robots we already have,” said Chris Budnick, president of Vanguard Plastics, a 30-person company in Southington, Conn., that makes custom-molded components.

Employees whose menial tasks are done by robots are not being laid off, he said, but assigned to jobs that require higher-level skills–including training the robots to work on manufacturing lines with short production runs where the tasks change frequently.

“Our folks loved it and they felt very comfortable with it,” Mr. Budnick said. “Even the older folks didn’t perceive it as a threat.”

Other efforts are under way to design robots that interact safely with human workers. Universal Robots, a Danish firm, has introduced a robot arm that does not need to be put in a glass cage–though the system requires a skilled programmer to operate.

And late last year Javier Movellan, director of the Machine Perception Laboratory at the University of California, San Diego, traveled to Tijuana, Mexico, where he took videos of workers in factories where jobs have been outsourced from the United States.

He wanted to study how the workers used their hands in an array of tasks, from woodworking to making automobile parts. After he returned to the United States, Mr. Movellan analyzed the videos with other scientists and realized that assembly workers used their hands in ways fundamentally different from those of today’s grasping robots.

“For humans it is very difficult to repeat the same movement twice,” Mr. Movellan said. “If they grasp an object, they will do it differently each time.”

In contrast to the fixed repetitive tasks performed by today’s robot arms and hands, scientists at the University of California, San Diego, and the University of Washington have built several prototype hands with pliable fingers that can move as quickly as the humans’.

The research group has set up collaborative arrangements with the Mexican factories, known as maquiladoras where they will be able to test their new robots.

“Despite decades of automation, there are relatively few types of tasks that have been automated,” said Emanuel Todorov, a cognitive scientist at Washington.

This is now changing rapidly as a new wave of manufacturing robots appears, driven by the collapsing cost of computing and the rapid emergence of inexpensive sensors that give robots new powers of vision and touch.

“The big hot button in the robotics industry is to get people and robots to work together,” said David Bourne, a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University. “The big push is to make robots safe for people to work around.”

Behavioral robotics

Rethink itself has made a significant effort to design a robot that mimics biological systems. The concept is called behavioral robotics, a design approach that was pioneered by Brooks in the 1990s and was used by NASA to build an early generation of vehicles that explored Mars.

Brooks first proposed the idea in 1989 in a paper titled “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control: A Robot Invasion of the Solar System.”

Rather than sending a costly system that had a traditional and expensive artificial intelligence based control system, fleets of inexpensive systems could explore like insects. It helped lead to Sojourner, an early Mars vehicle.

The next generation of robots will increasingly function as assistants to human workers, freeing them for functions like planning, design and troubleshooting.

Rethink’s strategy calls for the robot to double as a “platform,” a computerized system that other developers can add both hardware devices and software applications for particular purposes.

It is based on open-source software efforts–including the Robot Operating System, or ROS, developed by the Silicon Valley company Willow Garage, and a separate project called OpenCV, or Open Source Computer Vision Library.

That will make it possible for independent developers to extend the system in directions that Rethink hasn’t considered, much in the same way the original Apple II computer had slots for additional peripheral cards.

“We will publish an interface for the end of the wrist,” Brooks said. That will mean that while Baxter comes with a simple hand, or “end effector,” it will be able to adapt the system with more complex and capable hands that will be able to perform tasks that require greater dexterity.