How Up-to-date Are You on Robots?

Improving processes has often revolved around either some form of automation (think assembly line welding robots), simplification, better flow, optimized process parameters and other tactics. A new kind of robot, as exemplified by Boston’s Rethink Robotics’s Baxter, is a potential precursor to a breakthrough era in automation unlike other previous eras.

The robot, Baxter, is

a hulking two-armed robot that sits on a movable pedestal. Instead of a face, it has a comic pair of eyes displayed on a screen attached to its head.

Despite its countenance, Baxter is an extremely serious machine. Most industrial robots move rapidly and have to be caged to prevent them accidentally injuring anyone who comes near. They make precise but rigid movements, which is what you need when welding a car body. Baxter, however, moves with less determination because it compensates for changes in its environment. This means it can work safely alongside people.

Baxter uses a sonar located in its head to detect anyone nearby. If it spots someone, it slows down what it is doing. And instead of it having motors driving gears that operate its joints directly, Baxter’s gears drive a spring which in turn moves the joint. This gives the robot’s movements a degree of elasticity which, coupled with force sensors, provides a feedback mechanism. So, if you get in the way of its arm, for instance, it will sense that force and slow down or stop.

Programming the robot is simply a matter of moving its arms and manipulator fingers through the required motions, such as picking up items on a conveyor belt and putting them into boxes. Five cameras provide guidance, allowing Baxter to adjust automatically if items turn up in different positions, or if it drops something.

The cartoon eyes are used to produce expressions that can be identified quickly and easily by nearby workers, allowing them to determine how well Baxter is doing. For instance, the eyes look towards the place where one of its arms will move next and give a surprised expression if something unexpected is encountered there. The screen also provides information while the robot is being trained to carry out a task.

At $22,000, Baxter costs barely a tenth of some automated production-line systems. That works out at less than a dollar an hour if the robot operates around the clock for six days a week over three years. Its low-cost and flexibility, Dr Brooks hopes, will allow companies to undertake in their home markets some of the assembly work currently done offshore in places with lower costs. (The Economist, September 29, 2012)

Some of the capabilities and advantages of Baxter, according to Rethink’s website ( are:

Material handling: can be tasked with the general part movement. It can transport parts from one location to another, count, re-orient and much more.

Loading and unloading lines: Baxter can put parts onto moving conveyors or fixed surfaces, or remove them from moving conveyors or fixed surfaces.

Inspecting, testing and sorting: check parts for characteristics like weight or shape, evaluate against criteria and perform different actions depending on test results.

Machine operation: tend machines and perform operation sequences based on stimuli. For example, it can be trained to place a part in a machine and push a button.

Packing and unpacking: systematically pack a bag, box or tray. It can be trained to arrange packed objects in an array and unpack containers.

Light assembly: Baxter can be trained to align and snap fit assembly elements and insert items into containers.

Finishing operations: Baxter can grind, polish and perform other finishing operations on a variety of parts and materials.

Like a kind of industrial-strength product from Apple, the makers of this robot claim that:

Fully integrated: Unlike traditional industrial robots, Baxter comes complete with all the hardware and software it needs to get right to work—including various vision, force detection and range-finding sensors. So it can be working productively within an hour of arriving on your dock. No special expertise or expensive application software is required to customize Baxter for unique tasks. And because it contains a wide range of safety features, there’s no need to integrate external sensors or safety equipment, though you can certainly opt to do so. A complete, integrated system, Baxter can be repurposed quickly and easily—without new application software or hardware integration. So you can finally automate operations that experience frequent line turnover.

No programming required: No custom application code is required to get it started. So no costly software or manufacturing engineers are required to program it.

Rather, Baxter can be “taught” via a graphical user interface and through direct manipulation of its robot arms. That means non-technical, hourly workers can train and retrain it right on the line.

No Safety cages: Baxter was designed to work elbow to elbow with people, so no valuable floor space is required for safety cages. It includes three complementary safety systems:

Passive Safety System: It has no sharp edges or mechanical pinch points. Surfaces that could potentially cause harm upon impact are equipped with protective padding, and every joint is designed to be compliant. Additionally, every motor can be “back driven” in order to comply when unexpectedly pushed backwards. If Baxter’s power supply should be cut, its arms relax slowly. So employees have time to move safely out-of-the-way.

Active Safety System: Baxter contains sensors and software protocols that enhance safety. Sensors detect people within contact distance and trigger the robot to slow to safe operation speeds. This makes it easier for people to avoid inadvertent contact, and reduces impact in the event of an unintended collision. Baxter is also equipped with “self-safety” elements that prevent its body parts from hitting one another.

Interface To Third-Party Safety Components: While Baxter comes with a complete built-in safety system, you can augment it with external safety components. Its data ports easily interface with third-party safety devices like safety mats and light curtains.

Situational awareness: What can an adaptive manufacturing robot with common sense do? It can automatically react to environmental changes and alter its behavior to account for unexpected events—so it can continue to work productively after missing a pick-up or dropping a part. It can visually detect parts and instantly adapt to variations in part placement and conveyor speed. It can also adjust to changes in surface heights without being told. This “awareness” makes Baxter an invaluable asset, and informs a suite of safety features that make it perfectly safe to work around.

I’ve quoted at length from the company’s description of Baxter less as an ad for the device and more to illustrate the kind of capability that is coming over the horizon. Although the website emphasizes manufacturing applications, my own reaction to Baxter was how such a robot could one day act as a tireless aid in hospitals, chronic care facilities, and all manner of tasks that are tiring, tedious or dangerous for humans to perform. I also have a hypothesis that in some cases, people might respond better to a robot than a human because the robot does not judge us as perhaps we might fear another human might. As result, we might tell a robot something or ask a robot to help us with something that we might not tell or ask another person because of embarrassment.

Process improvement professionals should keep an eye on these developments to spot opportunities for breakthrough changes in how we do things.

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