When the Czech writer Karel Capek started working on his science-fiction play R.U.R., he asked his brother Josef what he should call the humanlike machines at the center of the play. Josef, who was a poet, thought of robota, the Czech word for forced labor, and told Karel to call them robots.
Since Josef Capek coined it in 1920, robot has become one of the hottest words in any language that adopted it. Yet despite all the talk about robotics, robots today can automate only a small fraction – about 5 percent – of the dull, monotonous work they could be used for. “There are robots welding cars and helping with other repetitive tasks, but manufacturers still can’t economically or practically automate most tasks in an assembly line,” says Jim Lawton, chief marketing officer of Rethink Robotics.
The company wants to change that reality with its smart collaborative robots like Baxter and Sawyer that can easily work with humans and adapt to real-world variability and imperfections. “We want to help companies build the factories of the future by revolutionizing how automation is deployed and freeing workers to use their minds for more interesting work,” Lawton says.
Rethink Robotics got several big backers last year. GE Ventures, Goldman Sachs, Bezos Expeditions and a group of other big names have invested in the company, which was founded by the Australian roboticist and former MIT professor Rodney Brooks in 2008. “Advanced manufacturing is an important area of focus for GE, both as an investor and a manufacturer,” says GE Ventures CEO Sue Siegel. “Rethink Robotics is paving the way for a new era of manufacturing in which robots work safely with humans and help companies to improve their production.”
Manufacturing robots aren’t typically the friendliest of fellows. Powerful electromechanical arms lift, spin and weld partially built car bodies. Precise robotic lathes and drills effortlessly transform metal blocks into complex parts. It’s an awe-inspiring thing to see a modern automated manufacturing facility in full swing. There’s only one thing – don’t get in the robots’ way or you could be seriously injured .
That’s why Rethink Robotics introduced Baxter in 2012. Baxter is leading a new category of smart, collaborative robots designed to safely and intelligently work right next to people. “Freeing the robot from its cage was just the beginning of a major leap forward in how manufacturers use automation,” Lawton says.
The real breakthrough with Baxter lies in how it tackles tasks. The red robot is 3 feet tall without its pedestal and weighs some 165 pounds. Workers can wheel it around the shop to where it is needed. Baxter has two agile arms and animated eyes, which indicate to nearby humans where it is working. When one of its two swinging arms encounters an unexpected object, say a person’s hand, the machine immediately stops moving.
Unlike traditional robots, it learns by training, not by programming. Workers can switch Baxter’s arms to a “zero G” mode, grab the robot by its wrists and simulate the task Baxter will be doing. “The team at Rethink Robotics really simplified the human-machine interface so anyone can program the robot,” says Roland Menassa, the Advanced Manufacturing Center leader at GE Global Research. “This is fundamental for advanced, flexible manufacturing. With Baxter, automation can be as redeployable as sending an email.”
GE is exploring Baxter’s applications in healthcare. But there are already hundreds of them working in American factories. Menassa says that the majority of repetitive assembly-line jobs are composed of tasks that add little value. “People are walking back and forth to grab parts and put them inside a product,” he says. “With Baxter stepping in, they can apply their brain and their time to more useful and interesting work.”
One company that already embraced Baxter is Vanguard Plastics Corp., a family-owned custom injection plastics company with 30 employees based in Connecticut. The robot’s job is simple and mind-numbing. It picks up plastic medicine cups coming from injection molders on a conveyor belt and drops them into a bagger.
Baxter has bagged over 800,000 cups in a month and a half, but he could be soon helping out elsewhere. “You can teach somebody to program Baxter in about 15 minutes,” says Chris Budnick, Vanguard’s president.
GE’s Menassa says that the ease of programming combined with Baxter’s mobility allows manufacturers, from mom-and-pops to GE, to embrace advanced, automated manufacturing and quickly retool and react to market demand. “Baxter allows you to introduce automation at a very low entry point,” he says. “If a traditional big robot that is bolted to the floor fails, the whole system stops. But if Baxter fails, a human can step in and you never incur downtime.”
Vanguard’s Budnick says that advanced manufacturing is key to his company’s future. Most of Vanguard’s human workforce has been around for more than 10 years. “I have a personal responsibility that we continue to exist and that they have jobs,” he says. “If we are not driving our productivity, our jobs will be taken by Asia or Mexico.”
Mildred Martinez, Vanguard’s shipping manager, says that when she “saw Baxter for the first time, I got scared. I said, oh my God, this robot is going to take away an operator. But after I worked with him, I said well, maybe he is going to help us.”
Eight hundred thousand cups later, Martinez doesn’t see Baxter as a robot. “I see him as a person,” she says. “I feel good with Baxter here, I’m very happy. He’s doing a good job.”