One of my former bosses once handed me a pamphlet he received in the mail for a local seminar about a newer robot designed to work in manufacturing. He wanted to know if I was interested in attending in order to evaluate if the new robot could be worthwhile investment for our plant. To get away from work to see a robotics demonstration and a free lunch, how could I say no?
While typical manufacturing robots are simply automated arms or machines custom designed to perform particular functions, this one was something else entirely. The robot was almost humanoid and possessed several innovative features that would allow it to add value to manufacturing processes in ways entirely different than most of the standard machinery available.
Its name was Baxter. Though I ended up not recommending our company invest in the $30,000 robot as opposed to hiring a human worker that could ultimately perform a wider variety of tasks with greater skill, it was exciting to observe a type of technology that would obviously soon make a substantial impact in my field. Baxter was a two armed robot that could learn tasks simply by humans moving its arms and interfacing with its controls. Impressively, Baxter had a visual system for analyzing parts and making decisions based on programmed criteria, as well as advanced safety features to detect nearby human workers as well as halt movements in order to prevent injury.
I knew that Baxter could be useful to many factories right that day, but not ours. This was on account of the fact that we already had high end machinery that performed all of our main processes. We also had a limited number of very experienced, very skilled floor employees that were employed to do things that Baxter just couldn’t… yet. Furthermore, I had my doubts about the usability of the control interface and training the average worker to teach Baxter. The biggest deal breaker was that most of our operations dealt with moving parts that were too small for Baxter to handle.
However, as with the case with most technologies, once they exist they are improved upon rapidly. So I could clearly envision a Baxter 2.0 handling a number of our manufacturing duties down the road. With just a reasonable amount of design refining and usability improvements applied to this robot, it was clear that there would be no reason that robots like Baxter would not someday be widely implemented.
I really wanted to justify the purchase of a Baxter and to see his LCD face displaying basic reactions around our plant. It just was not the time yet, but it was rewarding experience to gain a glimpse into what manufacturing future might hold and see a demonstration of technology on the cusp of large scale break through.
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