Robot options offer manufacturers chance to keep jobs in U.S.

| Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

A half-century since American manufacturing began shifting abroad, a lower-price generation of industrial robots may help companies retain jobs in the United States.

Entrepreneur Rodney Brooks concedes he doesn't “know yet whether it's going to be successful,” but a new robot line introduced by his Boston firm, Rethink Robotics Inc., offers to perform basic manual tasks for about half the sticker price of bigger robots in large-scale manufacturing. He said the human-esque device, called Baxter, can work side-by-side in proximity with humans, unlike other industrial robots.

At Carnegie Mellon University, where Brooks lectured on Friday, faculty members said the invention marks a significant advancement that could speed some smaller-scale manufacturing processes, streamline efficiency and prove safer than larger robotic systems in industry.

“Robots can effectively work in human spaces,” said David Bourne, principal scientist at the CMU Robotics Institute. He said robots such as the Baxter models, revealed in September and priced about $22,000 apiece, could play a part in returning manufacturing jobs to the United States.

Yet Baxter alone is not a revolution, Bourne said. He compared its arrival to 1982, when personal computers gained traction as everyday, mainstream devices.

Matt Mason, the Robotics Institute director, agreed Baxter has potential to help drive domestic job growth. It's especially easy to “train,” and doing so is much less expensive than programming higher-speed, large-scale robotic systems, he said.

Mason said Baxter looks particularly adept at “picking things up in one place and putting them down in another.” Its pricing makes it more accessible to smaller manufacturers that cannot afford conventional robots, according to industry observers.

“The idea behind Baxter is to have a user interface that's more familiar to people who have been using phones and iPads and similar devices,” Mason said. “An ordinary person might be able to set it up and program it.”

He said similar industrial robotic projects are in the works. Joseph Harkiewicz, a sales engineer for Intek Systems Inc. in Warrendale, said the technology could find a market niche.

Baxter's touchscreen interface differs dramatically from other robotics that require specially trained programmers, Harkiewicz said.

“I haven't seen any (robots) with a touchscreen where you can teach it. That's something new,” said Harkiewicz, who works with start-up ventures that need robotics hardware. “They might be on to something there.”

Brooks, in his Carnegie Mellon talk, said “you don't have to be a specialist to use a robot.” The United States counts more than 300,000 small manufacturing companies but almost none has robots, he said.

Industrial robots could “keep jobs from migrating overseas,” said Brooks, a professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1990, he co-founded iRobot Corp. in Bedford, Mass., which makes robots for at-home cleaning and military functions.

This time, in industry, “we wanted to change robots so they could work with people easily,” Brooks said.

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or

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