Baxter the robot

A robot for unskilled tasks that every plant has.

01/24/2013


Baxter the robot.The Automate show has been in Chicago this week, and that means lots of robots. Normally that isn’t my coverage area for Control Engineering, but I received an opportunity to come down and meet Baxter, the new offering from Rethink Robotics. Baxter has gotten a great deal of exposure since he came onto the scene last fall. He’s been the subject of articles in newspapers and business magazines, as well as TV appearances.

Baxter is designed to be versatile, inexpensive, and simple to use. For a fraction of the cost of a simple traditional industrial robot, you can buy your own unit and have him in your plant. Anybody (within reason) can program him. He’s on wheels, so you can move him to any workstation. His movements are kind of slow, but that is intentional so he can work next to people and not endanger anybody. His arms bend and they stop when hitting an obstruction. You could probably beat him in an arm wrestling contest.

Actually Baxter makes me think of the broom-carrying robot from the Warner Brothers cartoon, “House Hunting Mice” from 1947 (pictured), although he can’t roll himself around. Maybe there was some design influence.

An earlier robot concept.So, what’s the big deal? Why all this exposure, and why was there always a crowd around the company’s booth at the show? Compared to other robots, Baxter is the equivalent of unskilled labor. That’s not a put-down because manufacturing facilities all need some folks that are happy doing jobs that others would find far too boring. Baxter can be there in the plant, and when he’s needed, roll him to the right spot and train him to do the task. By all appearances, he can be trained for a simple function in a matter of minutes following an intuitive teaching method. You don’t plug in a laptop, write any code, deal with a PLC, or any of that. His two arms can even be programmed to carry out separate and unrelated tasks. Baxter is cheap enough that if he doesn’t have something to do every day, you won’t feel like you’re wasting money.

I’ve worked in enough manufacturing situations to have seen many scenarios where Baxter would do the job nicely. There are faster robots, stronger robots, and more sophisticated robots that are probably better suited to more complex tasks, but few if any that are easier to work with. The question will be if users find his skill set enough to make him one of those indispensible devices that every plant will want. It may come down to creativity.

Peter Welander, pwelander@cfemedia.com



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