A $25,000 robot named Baxter recently worked 2,160 straight hours in a Hatfield, Pa., injection molding factory, grabbing plastic parts off the line, placing them in a box and separating them with inserts, then counting the items to make sure each box was exactly the same.
Those tasks typically require six employees — two on each shift — and sometimes dust and debris requires they wear masks. It’s often hard to find willing workers, says the Rodon Group facility’s manager Tony Hofmann. The work is monotonous, mundane and sometimes dirty.
Rethink Robotics founder Dr. Rodney Brooks is eager to tell stories such as Rodon’s in the year since his Baxter — the first two-armed robot programmed for manufacturing tasks — hit the market.
The number of Baxters sold is still in the hundreds, and with 70 Boston-area workers and $73.5 million in venture capital raised, Brooks wants more manufacturers to understand that Baxter offers a cheaper, faster and safer way to make goods in the United States. And it typically means redeploying workers, not replacing them.
“Our customers are not about replacing workers. They are about increasing their productivity,” Brooks says. “We’re making it more pleasant to work in factories — the grunt work is done by these machines.”
By rethinking the way robots are made and the role they can play in the workplace, Brooks believes he can reignite the U.S. economy. His vision is to make this nation a viable place to make products again, reversing the practice of outsourcing manufacturing overseas.
Brooks’ work with robotics and automation spans three decades. He researched the science as a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and in the 1990s, co-founded the home robot maker iRobot, where he invented the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner that hit the market in 2002.
He was an early adopter of outsourcing — iRobot originally designed toys, and China offered competitive prices to make them. The Roomba was also made there.
But by the late 2000s, labor costs rose in China, workers’ standard of living improved, and it became harder to find assembly-line workers. Brooks thought of another way to source and prototype new products.
In 2008, he began to build a robot that functioned more like a human, with arms and grippers that could complete simple tasks such as packaging goods, handling materials and tending to machines (such as pressing a brake). It was easy and safe enough for a standard factory worker to manage and program.
And he designed the robot in partnership with U.S. manufacturers. That saved costs and demonstrated the ease of collaboration and innovation when goods are made close by.
But Brooks battles to spread the word about his company and its potential. Many manufacturers still default to China and other nations with low labor costs. Others fear Baxter would eliminate jobs.
And many misunderstand Baxter’s capability, assuming it’s a cheaper version of the industrial robots that handle dangerous and complex manufacturing tasks and sit inside cages.
“A lot of us are used to robotics five to 10 years ago that were expensive, heavy things that required experts and careful handling,” says Andrew McAfee, an MIT researcher who with colleague Erik Brynjolfsson published the book, The Second Machine Age in January. “This new world that Rethink is helping to create is legitimately novel, and a lot of companies have not given the new breed of robots a careful look.”
To help counter the obstacles, Brooks has provided the Baxter software free to research labs around the world so that more inventors can build two-armed robots. “I don’t know what they’re going to invent, but they are going to invent something,” he says.
But to really make a difference in Baxter sales, Brooks hopes more stories such as Rodon’s are told.
Baxter paid for itself during that three months of packaging plastic parts, Hofmann says, and he can see dozens of other Rodon projects for more Baxters to take on. At the same time, Rodon has hired six employees in the past year.
And the employees that used to do the factory’s packaging work? They’ve moved on to better projects such as managing the robot, Hofmann says.