Robots working with you at your side?

Robots could be everywhere, now that they are affordable and are your co-worker.

Chris Stakutis   978 764 3488     August 2014   CTO

There is a fairly new concept in robotics that is worth sharing. For decades, robots have been very large and extremely expensive machines. Automotive is the hallmark of robot use. If you have ever been to a modern automotive manufacturing plant, you will be amazed at the size, speed, and accuracy of those robots. You could never afford one for your business.

On the deep other side of the spectrum is toy robots. Plastic, cheap, not very accurate and not capable of working on complex assembly or picking tasks, especially at manufacturing durations.

What's new is the middle ground, now called Collaborative Robotics. These are machines that are about $25K in price which means most businesses can afford them. They are usually two-arms roughly the size and length of a human arm and able to lift reasonably sizable weights – 10 pounds or so. Often they are packaged into a table or a movable stand or a human-looking human-sized structure. There are two premier companies making such robots: Rethink Robotics and Universal Robots. Check out this picture of Baxter from Rethink Robotics:

What is really different today is that such robots are designed to work right next to humans on some assembly/manufacturing area. Historically robots are exceedingly dangerous (picture a BMW robot swinging the chasis of car at high speed and then welding parts to it) and always kept literally in a "cage" to avoid human contact. Even with small materials, say chips for a circuit board, the robot joints and sharp edges could hurt a worker, especially because robots move fairly quickly and on their own path.

Today, these smaller or medium-grade robots are built with many safety features. Such things as knowing a human is too close (via sonar and camera) and will slow down or pause the action. Joints and limbs are coated in a layer of soft material. Plus a really cool creation is called SEA, Series Elastic Actuators. What does this mean? The joints are somewhat rubberized and flexible instead of being steel-stiff and hard. This means if it accidentally bumps you, it will be more like bumping into someone in the super market than bumping into a moving train.

The new vision is that robots can't and don't have to do 100% of a task. They can work like a partner with neighbor humans and jointly address the tasks. It might sound obvious and simple, but it is truly a break-thru in thinking about manufacturing. So much of small or medium factory work is tedius or strenguous on the limbs and very suitable for a flexible machine. This frees up the worker to do the more industrious tasks.

Unlike a purpose-built automation solution, the beauty of a robot is that it is flexible and easily reprogrammable for a different task next week or next month. The business benefits by having the ability to adapt to changing business needs and products. Plus these robots are affordable for just about any size business. In fact, it comes out to roughly $4/hour to pay for the robot which is far away from the price paid to factory workers...and they dont need medical and dental and days off!

And they look cool!

As Rodney Brooks the founder of Rethink Robotics says: "In the future, there wont be enough robots." Whatever business you are in, you should look at this new breed of technology and see where it can help you!

Written for Modern Man Jack by: Chris Stakutis, technologist and author Twitter@Stakutis

© 2014 Chris Stakutis is an independent consultant, author, and software creator available to help your business.