Robotics Series #1 – ONExia and the Promise of Collaborative Robotics

September 10, 2013
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Greg Selke of ONExia, Inc. has seen the future of robotics, and it looks a lot like…us.

Most of us associate robotic manufacturing with industrial robots and tasks like automotive welding, the manipulation of large, heavy items, and similar work—demanding jobs that take place in dangerous environments or require precision, strength, and stamina humans simply can’t deliver.

“Industrial robots do fantastic work,” Selke says.  “At the same time, those robots are expensive, and it takes a lot of expertise to program them.  Those are real barriers to entry.”

Selke and the team at ONExia are at the forefront of a different movement, intent on automating tasks at the opposite end of the manufacturing spectrum.

“Many applications that can (and should) be automated are very straightforward,” Selke says.  “Products like the BaxterTM, ONErobotTM, and ONEreachTM robots, as well as our EasyreachTM operating software, are designed specifically to eliminate the need for technical expertise when it comes to teaching them what to do.”

The automation trend is definitely gaining traction in the manufacturing sector at large.  The Robotics Industries Association (RIA) found that robot shipments to North American customers in the first half of 2013 totaled $715.1 million, breaking the previous first-half record by 10.4%.  Moreover, Freedonia Group predicts that global demand for robots will grow nearly 11% annually through 2016, with sales figures expected to top $20 billion that year [Source: ThomasNet Industry Market Trends].

The Baxter robot—a product of Boston-based RethinkRoboticsTM distributed by ONExia—is a prime example of this new automation, a “collaborative” robot designed to work side by side with humans.

For starters, Baxter is easy to teach. Users simply grasp Baxter’s wrist to engage a button and move it to the pick-up and placement positions.  There’s no programming, no code, and no keyboard; all the calculations necessary to regulate motion happen below the surface.  ONExia’s own robots, ONEreach and ONErobot, follow a similar methodology, using the company’s proprietary Easyreach software to learn new tasks.

In quick-changeover environments like those common among SMEs, the fact that a line worker can modify setups on the fly makes these robots an excellent fit.  They can even interact with other machines, sequencing movements in conjunction with parts that are received from or delivered to other systems in the production environment.

Baxter even looks human.  Along with its two arms, its front panel display is complete with a face that makes relevant expressions as you interact with it.  Show it confusing movements, and it frowns; take its wrist to show it something, and it looks at you the same way a person would.

With all of these nearly human traits, it’s only natural for owners and coworkers to ascribe emotions and other personality traits to them.  Make no mistake, though; Baxter is 100% machine.

The Rodon Group is a Hatfield, Pennsylvania-based injection molder specializing in high volumes of small plastic parts, including the popular line of K’NEX® building toys.  They installed the area’s first Baxter robot in March of this year and rave that he recently came off a run of 24/7 operation that lasted several months.

“When we got him, he was out of the box, plugged in, and packaging parts within 45 minutes,” says Tony Hoffman, Rodon Group Facility Manager.  “He was using both arms, grabbing parts behind him and putting them in a box in front of him.  That particular task would have been brutally difficult for a human to perform for any length of time.  Baxter did it without a complaint.”

“When people see Baxter grinding reject parts, they’re going to be very happy,” says Lowell Allen, Rodon Group Senior Vice President of Manufacturing.  “It’s a loud, dirty job that no one wants.  With Baxter, now the human who would have been standing there doing that unpleasant work will just need to come over and check on him.”

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For Selke and other proponents of robotic manufacturing, though, there’s an elephant in the room.  With their promise of flawless, nonstop work without the need for breaks, vacations, healthcare, or compensation, don’t robots take jobs away from people?

“They sure do,” Selke says.  “They take jobs from low-cost workers overseas.”

In a September 3 piece for the MIT Technology Review, Robert D. Atkinson explored the job creation issue at length.  Atkinson’s article, Stop Saying Robots are Destroying Jobs—They Aren’t, argues that robots and other technologies are not to blame for the job drought.

“Technology never has destroyed jobs on a net basis and it won’t in the future,” he writes.  “When a machine replaces a worker, there is a second order effect: the organization using the machine saves money, and that money flows back into the economy—either through lower prices, higher wages for the remaining workers, or higher profits. In all three cases that money gets spent, which stimulates demand that other companies respond to by hiring more workers.”

At Rodon, the benefits of automation go deeper than simply alleviating the need for humans to perform unpleasant tasks. Allen says the ability to leverage robotics drives profitability and enables more effective competition—overseas and domestically.

The proof, it seems, is in the bottom line as well as on the production floor. Rodon’s increased profitability is being rolled back into additional manufacturing capacity.  In the short term, Rodon is adding six new hires: operators and skilled set-up technicians and mold makers to support new work.

“We’re positioned to move into new areas we have never had an opportunity to enter previously,” Allen says.  “We’re expanding our Rodon window division and expect to one day be the low-cost provider to the North American window and door industry.”

Rodon has proven its ability to walk its talk with regard to new workforce development, as well.  The company partners with local tech schools and colleges and was recently nominated for the Most Valuable Partnership Award by the Bucks County Youth Council.

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As reported in Fast Company earlier this year, Baxter has been created specifically to work with humans rather than replace them.

Factory robots are dangerous to be around, and to program them you have to know a lot,” says Rethink Robotics founder and MIT professor Rodney Brooks in a recent TED talk. “Normal people can’t interact with them—they’ve displaced the worker from the technology.  Baxter not only looks kind, but it’s safe to work alongside as well: its arms can sense when it runs into a person, lessening dangerous run-ins.”

The issue of robots helping to create jobs was underscored at a congressional caucus event held July 31 in Washington, D.C.  During “Harnessing New Robotics Technologies for Job Creation,” event participants learned that robots will create an estimated 1-2 million jobs between 2017 and 2020.

Experts assert that no matter what critics say, robots are not the real threat to U.S. manufacturing jobs.  According to Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advanced Automation, the danger lies in the inability to remain globally competitive, the failure to keep up with the pace of consumer demand, and outsourcing.

“I’ve been in this industry for over 30 years,” he says. “When I got involved in the late 70s, there was a big concern that robots were going to be the next industrial revolution, and there weren’t going to be any jobs. It went away, because I think even the unions realized that this was a way to preserve jobs, and this was a way to become competitive.  For every robot you see, someone had to build it, design it, program it, maintain it, apply it, and integrate it.  The robot industry itself generates a lot of jobs” [Source: ThomasNet Industry Market Trends Career Journal].

With a starting price tag of just $22,000 ($32,000 and change with some accessories and an extended warranty), Baxter gives domestic manufacturers a chance to finally level the playing field.

“At that price point, even small companies here can finally compete with people overseas who perform repetitive tasks for next to nothing,” Selke says. “ONExia ad RethinkRobotics are determined to bring manufacturing work back to the U.S.  Baxter is making that goal possible.

“We need American workers to use their abilities to think and innovate—to do the things robots can’t do,” he continues.  “As our manufacturers compete more effectively on the world stage, they will be more profitable.  That profitability will enable them to expand and employ more people.

That is what we need: more jobs in manufacturing,” Selke says. “That’s what built us, and that’s what will make us strong again.”

You can see the Baxter robot in action on October 4 at DVIRC’s National Manufacturing Day event.  National Manufacturing Day will feature a full slate of presentations, discussions, Q&A sessions, demonstrations, and other exciting activities.  Follow the link above to learn more and reserve your spot.