Share This Page

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

| Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Rodney Brooks, Panasonic professor emeritus of robotics at MIT, a robotics entrepreneur and founder, chairman and CTO of Boston-based Rethink Robotics Inc. delivers a talk called, 'A New Class of Industrial Robot,' highlighting his new Baxter robot that is used in the manufacturing industry while visiting Carnegie Mellon University Friday, October 12, 2012. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Jasmine Goldband
Rodney Brooks, Panasonic professor emeritus of robotics at MIT, a robotics entrepreneur and founder, chairman and CTO of Boston-based Rethink Robotics Inc. delivers a talk called, 'A New Class of Industrial Robot,' highlighting his new Baxter robot that is used in the manufacturing industry while visiting Carnegie Mellon University Friday, October 12, 2012. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review

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 asmeltz@tribweb.com.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.