Oct. 17 - The revival of manufacturing in the U.S. has been a hot topic for debate in the run-up to the presidential election, but one company based in Boston believes the answer lies not in factory jobs for humans, but for robots. Rethink Robotics has developed a low cost automoton they say could re-energize factory floors and allow U.S. manufacturers to compete with low wage countries like China. Ben Gruber reports.
Baxter the robot will happily perform even the most mundane task over and over again...and it will do it for less than minimum wage. Baxter is the brainchild of Rodney Brooks, a former MIT professor and now the founder and CTO of Boston start-up Rethink Robotics. Brooks has spent most of his life developing robots. He describes Baxter as a game-changer with the potential to resurrect the U.S. manufacturing industry, and with $69 million in venture capital already raised, some think he's right. (SOUNDBITE) (English) RODNEY BROOKS, FOUNDER AND CTO, RETHINK ROBOTICS, SAYING: "People get really bored doing the same task again and again and they start to make errors so let the robot do the dull mindless task but you have to have it so it is easy to set up what that task is and tell the robot what it is so that you don't have to bring in a team of engineers every time you want to change your process. And in lots of small factories a particular product run may only be two hours before they switch over the line to do something else because that are doing small batches all of the time. So it has not been a good place for automation up until now." But Brooks says the creation of Baxter changes that. He says the robots' artificial intelligence and computer vision combine to make the ideal factory worker. Baxter has a total of five cameras - two of which are embedded in its hands that act as eyes. It also has a host of motion detectors and range finders that allow the robot to sense its surroundings. But Rethink Robotics CEO Scott Eckert says its Baxter's easy to use programming which sets the robot apart. (SOUNDBITE) (English) SCOTT ECKERT, PRESIDENT AND CEO, RETHINK ROBOTICS, SAYING: "You train Baxter like you would train a person to do a job. You actually grab the arm of Baxter and you show Baxter where stuff is that you need to pick up, you squeeze and button and Baxter picks it up. You show Baxter where he needs to put it and you squeeze a button and Baxter puts it there. You tell Baxter go and he will do exactly what you just showed him." Brooks says that all of the robots common sense - like not hurting humans and having the ability to realise when it's finished a task - are all pre-programmed into the robots software. But is replacing humans with robots good for the economy? Eckert says yes. He says by making U.S. manufacturers more competitive, companies will have more time and money to train workers for higher level jobs. He says the ultimate goal is making manufacturers more productive. (SOUNDBITE) (English) SCOTT ECKERT, PRESIDENT AND CEO, RETHINK ROBOTICS, SAYING: "Baxter is the next step of that. How do we go after the next types of jobs that we haven't been able to automate to get more productivity out of American manufacturers? If they are more productive than they are more competitive with their low cost competitors. We bring jobs back to the U.S. and we restore U.S. manufacturing." Eckert and Brooks say the first generation of Baxter's are ready to report to work at factories across the United States.