It's no Cylon, but Rethink Robotics' Baxter robot is a meaningful stride forward in adaptive computing, and may very well foreshadow a boon to the American manufacturing industry.
Baxter sells for $22,000 a unit and is aimed at both small businesses and large manufacturing firms. The robot is capable of handling material, packing and unpacking, light assembly, material loading, line loading, machine tending, test and sort, and finishing operations.
Most manufacturing machines are hidden behind safety cages and require experienced engineers to tailor a customized program to fit the functions of a particular workplace, but Rethink Robotics looks to make teaching Baxter accessible and intuitive for everyday employees. In order to teach the robot a new function, all a supervisor has to do is move its arm in the desired motion and press a button to lock in the pattern. Baxter will provide visual feedback through its "face", allowing teachers to gather if Baxter understands the new programming. Once it gets to work, the robot moves at a "human cadence," making it a viable option for small business owners who don't have the funds to retrofit their assembly line to accommodate a lightning fast standard manufacturing machine.
Safety measures have also been considered, as Rethink has included technology that allows Baxter to detect when a person enters the workplace, display a visual cue it recognizes their presence, and proceeds to slow down its operations in order to prevent injuries. "Its unique compliant mechanical architecture lets Baxter give on contact," should it knock into an employee.
The ultimate goal is to redirect money that flows out of the U.S. through outsourcing and encourage American leadership in a profitable intelligent robotics manufacturing industry.
Rodney Brooks, the man who thought up Baxter, says that America is "spending hundreds of billions of dollars doing [manufacturing] work in China."
"We want companies to spend that here, in a way that lets American workers be way more productive."
The company is careful to redirect concerns that Baxter will take over the jobs of line workers, stating in a promotional video that "People working with Baxter get a promotion from working on repetitive, mundane tasks to supervising robots that do them."
How Baxter Works