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Focus: Manufacturing

Feature Article from Our Manufacturing Subject Area - See All

From SCDigest's On-Target E-Magazine

- March 12, 2013 -

 
Supply Chain News: Is the Market Taking a Liking to Baxter, the "New Age" Industrial Robot from Rethink Robotics?

 

There May be a Few Dozen Baxters Currently in the Field, Including One at Toy Maker K'Nex; Understanding How New Applications will be Released

 

SCDigest Editorial Staff

Last September, with much fanfare, Rethink Robotics, the company founded by former MIT professor and inventor of the robotic Roomba vacuum cleaner Rodney Brooks, released to much fanfare it first product, named Baxter.

According to the company, Baxter (see image below) would revolutionize industrial robotics by making them inexpensive, safe, able to be taught what to do without complicated and expensive programming, and other capabilities much different from traditional robots.

SCDigest Says:

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Rosenberg says the real savings come from not having to hire integration engineers, software programmers, etc. to make the robot work, saying those efforts can often take weeks or months.

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In fact, the company said Baxter might even help accelerate the US reshoring trend by reducing labor costs for boring, repetitive tasks most US workers don't want to do anyways. (See Rethink Robotics Releases First New Product in Much Anticipated Announcement.)

Now a little more than six months after that release, SCDigest wanted to get an update on the market progress of Baxter, interviewing Rethink Robotics' VP of marketing and product management Mitch Rosenberg on the weekly video new program produced by our Supply Chain Television Channel and CSCMP.

 

The discussion was triggered in part by recent news that toy maker K'Nex is now using a Baxter in its factory in Hatfield, PA as a component of its successful effort to bring its manufacturing back from China to US soil.


"We've been very pleased with people's response thus far," Rosenberg says. "We immediately started collecting leads of companies interested in using Baxter in a wide variety of manufacturing and asse
mbly applications, and started shipping Baxters at the end of last year."

We learned something new in the interview, in that much of the product development for Baxter is focused on building the software that is needed for Baxter to be trainable and usable in different applications.

 

As mentioned above, unlike perhaps every other industrial robot, Baxter does not require complicated programming to perform task - or any programming at all. Instead, workers simply use Baxter itself to demonstrate the details of that work, such as reaching out, grabbing a part from a conveyor, and putting it in a box.

Naturally enough, all the things Baxter can potentially do have not yet been programmed into Baxter by Rethink Robotics engineers. While users don't need to program the robot, Rethink must develop the smarts in Baxter for it to be teachable for new sorts of work.

There are only "a couple of applications for Baxter right now," Rosenberg said, though more are coming. He says from a vertical industry perspective, the best fits are currently in the metals fabrication and plastics sectors, but that will continue to expand.

Typically what Baxter is being used for in companies in these markets are "pick in place" applications, such as picking things off a conveyor and putting it into a bag or a box, and the reverse, taking things out of a box and putting them somewhere, like a conveyor, these kinds of applications," Rosenberg.

He said that the company will release a number of new Baxter applications through 2013.


(Manufacturing Article Continued Below)

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Rosenberg didn't want to get specific, but told Gilmore that Rethink had "several dozen" Baxters in the hands of customers currently. A company spokesperson later told SCDigest that the company had received more than 3000 inquiries about Baxter since the September launch.

Does the promise of no programming in the field for a Baxter really work in the real world?

"Absolutely, really, really," Rosenberg said. "Every one of those applications is happening without writing any lines of code. You basically grab the arm of the robot, show the robot what to do, including using images or video of objects that need to be recognized by the robot, helping the robot distinguish between objects you are interested in and those you are not… None of these tasks require any software background whatsoever. In fact, people without college degrees have had no trouble at all training Baxter."

Again, unlike most traditional robots, you can go to the Rethink web site, order a Baxter, and it arrives on your dock a few days later. From there, you can uncrate it and "have it be doing productive work within the hour," Rosenberg says.

The pricing model is also different. Rosenberg says a customer can buy a fully functioning robot for $22,000, and even fully "optioned up" the price rises to just $30,000 or so. But Rosenberg says the real savings come from not having to hire integration engineers, software programmers, etc. to make the robot work, saying those efforts can often take weeks or months.

What's next for Rethink Robotics or Baxter? While Rosenberg said he couldn't "pre-release" any details, they plan to release new applications "at a cadence of about once a quarter."

"It's not hard to make a robot do a complicated movement," Rosenberg said. "What's hard is to make it easy for the line worker to do that, and that's why we can't release all the applications at the same time."


Have you taken a look at a Baxter yet? Is this where we need to go with industrial robots?
Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback section below.



Recent Feedback

Collaborative "cage free" robot technology is game changing for manufacturing automation. However, it is clear that Baxter is not ready for implementation into the industrial factory floor. However, there is another collaborative robot which has recently been introduced into the US Market and can be used today -out of the box!
Please take a look at the 2 products offered by Universal Robots -UR5 and UR10. These 2 robots are teachable on the line today in the way that Baxter hopes to be teachable in the future. www.universal-robots.com/ .


Susan Nangle
Sales engineer
Axis, Inc.
Apr, 03 2013

This product continues to get the press while others are actually being deployed. Check out universal-robots.com for a collaborative robot that specifically meets our manufacturing needs, resolution, speed, ease of programming, price, etc. Over 2500 systems installed and working in recent years.


Richard Gehring
CEO
Applied Controls
Apr, 04 2013
 
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