2015 may become known as the year of the robot, just as 2014 was the year of connected everything. The recent shift in robotics is not centered on mammoth packaging or welding machines, but rather on small agile machines that are safe around humans. Rethink Robotics with its ubiquitous Baxter has become one of the faces of the new people-friendly robots.
Factory robots for mass production have been kept in large cages since they are heavy and dangerous. The new robots don't need to be isolated. They are soft and they freeze when they bump into a human. "Traditional robots are in cages because they hurt people. We brought the robots out of the cage," Jim Lawton, chief marketing officer of Rethink Robotics, told Design News. "We have this new category that doesn't need a cage and can't hurt you. Getting the robot out of the cage is a big step."
Part of the reason to get the robot out of the cage is so it can do tasks that are not endlessly repetitive. The new robot can help with a variety of tasks. "We look at how we can get the robots to do real work with real value in an imprecise environment with constantly changing tasks. We need the robot to be flexible," said Lawton."
Robotics for non-programmers
The goal was to create a robot that can do a number of tasks and can be switched from task to task. The software to make this possible is embedded in the robot so users don't have to program every task. "It needs to be a tool that companies can quickly get up and running with little expertise. Companies should not have to be experts in robotics," said Lawton. The ease of operation and flexibility make the robot affordable to companies that watch ROI closely. "They need the robot to be able to do a variety tasks and do it with a payback in a year or less."
The small flexible robot becomes an automation system for companies that have not invested heavily in automation. "Now that I have these robots, how do I make them valuable to me? In the real world that's challenging. That's why automation has been narrowed to a few industries over the last few years," said Lawton.
Robots for small plants
The newer robots are also becoming less expensive, which makes them attractive to small and medium-sized plants. "We've seen the uptick in interest in robots for small to medium businesses. They got left out of the automation revolution. They don't have the big machines or people to program their automation," said Lawton. "Their products are high mix and low volume. Now there's a robot that's really cheap and you can move it around from job to job. So these folks are now getting into it."
One major advantage of small robots with embedded software is that it doesn't need to be customized for each deployment. Users can move the robot around to teach it what needs to be done. "In the past, robots have been customized per installation. They had to be programmed every time you put them to use. These new robots don't need that customization," said Lawton.
Given that a user can take the small robot and teach it what to do, it's often surprising how the robot is used. "Customers send us videos of what the robot is doing. We look at that and think, 'I wasn't sure we could do that,'" said Lawton. "We're learning a lot as we go. Eager customers are trying new things. It's part of how the industry is going to roll out over the next two to five years."
Lawton noted that the startling advances in robotics are coming from smaller robots. "Traditional robots are very mature and well understood. Those high-volume robots are improving, but it's incremental," said Lawton. "The space with collaborative robots is where you can do things in really different ways. You have all this artificial intelligence and the ability to combine the different forms of technology."
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