U.S. manufacturing to benefit from adaptable automation

September 19, 2012

saac Asimov, the science fiction writer, visualized a world where robots and humans worked safely together, a dream that could become reality if a humanoid robot called Baxter becomes an integral part of the assembly line.

Robot workers have become accepted by the manufacturing industry for many years but they normally work in a separate location to humans and, despite being a hard-working member of the team, safety concerns limit interaction. According to the BBC, Baxter may be the first robot that can boost the efficiency of a production line without needing to be handled with care.

Designed as part of a new concept in manufacturing strategy, the robot has been engineered to work as part of an assembly line. Built by Rethink Robotics, Baxter can apply common sense to the tasks set, adapt to an environment and be trained by workers that have no robotic experience. He even has facial expressions that simulate what he is thinking or if he has become confused by an instruction.

Figures released by the International Federation of Robotics show that globally there are 1.1 million working robots, with the majority of them involved in manufacturing. The car industry relies on production line robots to build vehicles, with 80 percent of all work involved in creating a car performed by automated engineers. Companies with large manufacturing requirements use robots on a daily basis, a business strategy that some smaller companies are unable to budget for.

Baxter could be the answer. Currently interning at Vanguard Plastics in Southington, Connecticut, the six foot machine has been able to demonstrate that robots don't need to be caged. When he moves his 300 pound frame around, he does it slowly while taking into account any nearby co-worker and, when he goes on sale in October, he will cost $22,000.

"Roboticists have been successful in designing robots capable of superhuman speed and precision, " says Rodney Brooks, Baxter's creator. "What's proven more difficult is inventing robots that can act as we do – in other words, that are able to inherently understand and adapt to their environment."

That environment could see manufacturing jobs return to the U.S. A recent article in MIT's Technology Review suggested that while other countries can offer low labor costs, robots could take over menial production line tasks and allow small-to-medium-sized businesses to compete on a more level playing field.

"We could offer new hope to the millions of American manufacturers who are looking for innovative ways to compete in our global economy," said Mr Brook.