Dear Colleagues,

Over a million robots toil endlessly in (particularly car) factories around the world. However, they are expensive, difficult to maintain and time consuming to program and only have a limited repertoire of activities.

Low Cost Robots equivalent to the PC
What many are calling for is a low cost equivalent to the ubiquitous PC. Obviously, one is after something considerably more reliable than the PC. A recent innovation by Dr Brooks (originally hailing from MIT) is a large two-armed robot (called Baxter) that is located on a moveable pedestal costing under $22,000 (but considerably cheaper than an equivalent production line robot).

We all know about consumer robots
Most of us have come across these snazzy little consumer low cost robots which scoot around happily under chairs and tables cleaning our homes. Definitely becoming more user friendly and effective. Consumer-based but not quite industrial. So this new industrial robot, Baxter, does offer some great opportunities.

Robots can hurt people
A concern many have with industrial robots is their undoubted ability to hurt humans working in their proximity (and hence they – well, the robots – need to be housed in protective cages). This particular one (Baxter) has a sonar located on its head to detect any object near by. It then compensates for the presence of any objects with its movements thus possessing a degree of elasticity in its movements.

Programming is done by moving its arms and manipulators through the required trajectories it is required to execute (e.g. putting tops on bottles and packing them into boxes or picking up items from a conveyor belt and popping them into a box).

Quick Payback
A low cost industrial robot opens the door to reducing the costs of assembly line work. Suggestions are that the payback could be less than 6 months if the robot could work 8760 hours per year compared to a human equivalent of 1600 hours. However, the truth of the matter is that it could probably replace 10% of assembly workers as technology (as we all painfully know) never quite lives up to its initial hype.

What are a few lessons from this?

  • Robots are rapidly becoming lower cost and available
  • Re-examine tasks that you have humans doing which are dangerous and mindlessly repetitive – these may be cost effective to swap across to robot-based
  • Keep researching the robotic offerings out there for the one that may soon fit your requirements
  • In your new designs, give serious consideration to more lower cost robots

In inventing new approaches in engineering, Charles F. Kettering makes a good point: Inventing is the mixing of brains and materials. The more brains you use, the less materials you need.

Thanks to the Economist for an interesting article on the PC’isation of robots.

Yours in engineering learning