U.S. manufacturers get chance to see Baxter for themselves

January 22, 2013

The resurgence of U.S. manufacturing has been credited to a number of events over the last few months, with the principles of lean enterprise and reshoring rightly taking the plaudits of an industry considered to be the backbone of the country.

However, small-to-mid-size U.S. manufacturers could soon find that a new breed of industrial robot will be just as important. Having now successfully completed an internship at Vanguard Plastics, an injection-molding firm in Southington, Connecticut, Baxter the robot has been presented as part of the ongoing revival in American manufacturing by the Association of Advancing Automation.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Baxter has become a minor celebrity in the industry since he was unveiled in September of last year. Standing six foot tall and with a body that was built to work alongside humans, as opposed to replacing them, the industrial machine has been featured heavily in the general media and was even the subject of a segment on “60 minutes.”

However, up until now, the robot has been quietly getting on with the jobs assigned to him in Connecticut, with his creators making sure that he has the same commitment to quality management in manufacturing as his co-workers. The creation of Boston-based Rethink Robotics, Baxter was designed to be an integral part of the assembly line, programmed to perform repetitive tasks such as sorting and packing, and with a price tag of just $22,000, he could be the perfect addition to a small manufacturing company.

Most manufacturing robots are nothing more than arms and, as such, are unable to be employed on the factory floor alongside other members of the workforce. Baxter, who now has two siblings, was specifically designed to provide a more “human face” to industrial machinery. His designers have given him a face with a variety of pre-programmed expressions, all of which indicate whether he understands the instructions given to him or to allow workers to monitor his performance.

“The robot is the interface,” said Scott Eckert, president and chief executive of Rethink Robotics. “We wanted to make it so easy that a typical factory worker can train the robot to do a job. The interface is very visual to guide you through a set of simple tasks.”

This dedication to simplicity is why Baxter could be the new face of U.S. manufacturing. Companies are bringing their supply chain back from overseas producers due to the increasing cost of labor and with a domestic workforce already swelled by over 500,000 since 2009 there is a consensus of opinion that lean enterprise starts at home. Even more so if you have an all-American robot in your corner.