I don’t always train robots, but when I do, they are made by Rethink Robotics and named Baxter.
Friday morning, Rethink Robotics, one of the world’s leading robotic companies, held an event entitled “Breakfast with Baxter.” Alas, the manufacturing-centric, “common sense” robot and I didn’t share sections of the Times and a split a bagel. Rather, the meet-up revolved around two poignant discussions by Rethink Robotics’ founder and CTO Rodney Brooks, a co-founder of iRobot, and Scott Eckert, the company’s president and chief executive, on the future of manufacturing in respects to technology and automation, as well as insights from Baxter’s initial seven months on the market.
While Baxter may have only been available for less than a year, the robot–and its makers–are poised to transform the American manufacturing process. The “Made in Taiwan” era of exploited low-cost labor overseas must come to a close, according to Brooks. The manufacturing hubs of the East are creeping further West to find cheap workers, but the costs of outsourcing production continues to climb. The biggest force driving the need for bringing U.S. manufacturing back home, however, is one that’s often been overlooked to benefit the bottom line.
“Outsourcing manufacturing equals outsourcing innovation,” stated Brooks.
Rethink Robotics hopes that Baxter will be part of the catalyst for reinvigorating the manufacturing industry in our country. Just as the PC democratized computers, Brooks explained, Baxter brings the power of robotics to ordinary people. Factory workers [and I] can train the red human-like robot to do tasks like assembling packages of shelving (see in the video below) in one or two hours.
“When computers were black boxes, people didn’t like them…and now they’re in our pockets,” Brooks explained, brandishing an iPhone. Diverging from the current, dangerous factory robots, Baxter is extremely worker-friendly, almost humanesque. The robot’s small monitor “head” nods after each step of training; when confused, one of his digital eyebrows furrows in a puzzled look–a major contrast when compared to the animalistic, monstrous machines of other Boston robotics companies.
According to CEO Eckert, Rethink Robotics is currently focused on bringing Baxter to small and medium companies with “underrobotted” manufacturing–businesses where it never made sense, economically or otherwise, to invest in robotics in the past. With a pricetag starting around $22,000, Baxter delivers a simple solution and a return on an investment in under a year. Unlike human workers, the robot has no problem pulling a regular night shift in addition to daylight hours and is consistently productive.
As we wrote before, companies and colleges are creating apps for specially-made R&D Baxters to teach him to do other things, as well. Videos show Baxter learning deep grasping and object recognition. Eckert also acknowledged that Baxter could have a strong future for the creation of medical products, and is currently being trained to pipet various chemical agents in Tufts’ labs.
So far, companies and their workers have been responding well to Baxter and are just now beginning to make repeat purchases. Eckert even said that 18 months from now, an undisclosed company plans to build a plant entirely around the use of Baxters (there were other motivations involved, as well).
Now that the factory robot has been made-over, it’s time for the the American manufacturing industry and innovation to catch up.
Also, if you’re like me and are curious about where the name came from, here’s the answer: Eckert told me that while the company was in stealth mode creating the robot, he was referred to as “Cooper.” That name was taken off the table, however, due to the Mini Cooper brand. Baxter was a Rethink Robotic engineer’s submission. So…no, it was not a homage to Ron Burgundy’s late little dog in “Anchorman.” But once you meet him, Baxter will probably become your new favorite “little gentleman.”
Videos courtesy of Rethink Robotics