Industrial robotics has changes the way it looks. Baxter is the much awaited robot developed by Rethink Robotics. It a lower cost robot that will be easier to deploy and more flexible than the robots that are now in the market. This configuration is not new as we have seen this in the past. Foxconn has plans to launch a similar robot in coming years and the Yaskawa Robot, not to mention the ones found in the research labs.
At USD22,000, this is not a large investment for companies if it doesn’t require a drastic change to the existing workflow. It will be interesting to see how intelligence and perception will enable Baxter to work with the people around him. This is how they plan to reduce the accuracy and precision required by industrial robots. Brooks has a lot of experience in dealing with this aspect of robotics – Behavioral robotics. With the revolution on the software side with Willow Garage’s Robot Operating System (ROS) and the other projects at the Open Source Robotics Foundation, it’s going to see how this non-proprietary “robot intelligence” will push robots into our daily lives.
Rethink hopes to target the small-scale manufacturers where flexibility matters, where they are still reliant on their human workforce. With it’s current price tag and ease of implement, the barriers for entry is greatly reduced. The Baxtor is a made in USA robot. Various parts have been optimised to reduce the cost of the robot by looking into novel methods of manufacturing the parts.
Robotics and perception technology is getting cheaper and more robust. It will indeed help bring manufacturing back to 1st world countries. This is an issue in America as well as in Europe. China’s cost of manufacturing is also increasing. With a push and a pull, there’s an incentive now for 1st world countries to rethink manufacturing. China is not the only option now, since the cost of manufacturing now is much higher there. Foxconn is feeling it and they have plans to replace the current workforce with robots (1 million of them) in 3 years.
Are we going to see a shift in manufacturing towards the west? Are we going to see innovation in robotics and manufacturing? The landscape of automation is going to change. We are going to rely on software and cheaper hardware to get things done. Willow Garage, Redwood robotics and Rethink robotics are geared for this shift.
Today’s manufacturing robots are big and stiff, unsafe for people to be around, engineered to be precise and repeatable, not adaptable. Normal workers can’t touch them… What if ordinary people could touch robots? What if ordinary people got to interact with them and use them?
Placing the human in proximity to a robot might slow down a robot while it performs its task. I am curious to find out how this can be achieved in reality. Are these robots inherently safe, where even safety is considered from a hardware perspective.
Robots are typical position controlled but there is a move to force control or impedence control where forces with the human, the environment and the object are consider. This means the robot is becoming more like us as it’s possible for a human to work blindfolded feeling our way and figuring out the objects and the environment around us just by touch. There are a few companies that are working and selling these types of robots.
Meka Robotics is one company that has developed a human safe force controlled robot that can be used for such applications. Barrett Technology’s WAM arm is another such arm is highly dexterous, naturally backdrivable. It’s being used in the DARPA’s ARM Challenge. The other arm is the KUKA’s LWR arm has a 1:1 Mass-Payload ratio with a 7kg payload. This ensures that the robot is safe as compared to a typical industrial robot. The LWR is on sale but there is a great interest in the arm from the industry. These technologies don’t come cheap but it’s the way robotics should go. It would be good to see more adopter of the technologies in the real world outside of the laboratories.