At the Pacific Design & Manufacturing Show and co-located events like ATX West, I visited a few robot booths, but left coverage of the industrial bots to my colleague, Rob Spiegel.
That is, except for Rethink Robotics' Baxter. I visited the Rethink booth again this year and talked to Eric Foellmer, product marketing and marketing communications manager, who showed me the company's latest Baxter robot demo. The big red guy still looks pretty much the same, but has some new abilities, mostly due to software.
This year Baxter was demoing the 2.0 software released last fall. This software added three main features and performance improvements: Pick and Place Everywhere, defining Waypoints, and a Hold function, plus improvements in speed, repeatability, and vision capabilities. Watching the robot and its handlers demonstrate these new abilities was fascinating. Some of the movements Baxter can now make in picking and packing reminded me of the sophistication of a human's arm and wrist movements. You can watch a video here showing Baxter packing and loading, as well as diagrams demonstrating the simplicity of programming the robot. You can find more videos on this page.
Baxter showed off his 2.0-derived moves at ATX West this year. The big red guy still looks the same, but has some new abilities, mostly due to software. For example, Pick and Place Everywhere lets Baxter perform pick-and-place at any axis, from any orientation to any orientation, freeing him up for packing and loading.
(Source: Rethink Robotics)
Foellmer said one thing customers are doing is integrating Baxter with other automation equipment, as well as with humans, which the new software enables, especially its Waypoint and Hold functions. This is being done via digital I/O to PLCs, for example. Besides pick-and-place, packing/unpacking, and loading/unloading, Baxter is also doing machine tending tasks.
Not only small companies, which are Rethink's targets, are using the robot. Many recent customers are larger companies, often using one or more Baxters in small offline cells doing QA and inspection tasks, Foellmer told us. Some new features are in gripper technology, specifically a new vacuum platform that gives users more ability to customize the robot's vacuum grippers. Most customers are using vacuum grippers now, but a few still work with linear electric grippers.
I also learned that the Baxter Research Robot with a stripped-down version of Rethink's software isn't just going to university labs. Although some of those applications can be pretty amusing, like the Baxter programmed by Cornell University students to do supermarket checkout tasks, the research version is also being purchased by internal R&D departments, and Rethink has just begun shipping this version globally, said Foellmer. Corporate R&D departments are using the robot with more traditional programming and some are using it as a design platform, aided by the robot's open-source Unix-based OS, ROS (robot operating system).