The robot Baxter, pictured in the video above, was designed to be a simpler, safer manufacturing robot. It has a screen with “eyes” designed to warn users about its movements.
But since its introduction two years ago, sales of the $25,000 machine have been disappointing. Only several hundred have entered the workforce.
That has led Baxter’s creators, Rethink Robotics, to develop Sawyer, which has a strong family resemblance to Baxter but is smaller, faster, and more precise.
MIT Technology Review has an excellent assessment of the potential of Baxter’s younger brother.
Baxter is good at grabbing objects from a conveyor belt, but can’t perform many of the tasks that manufacturers are eager to automate. Sawyer is designed to perform so-called “machine tending” tasks, which generally require a human to stand next to a piece of machinery inserting and removing parts. One prominent example, from the electronics manufacturing industry, is called an in-circuit test: a worker inserts a newly produced circuit board into a machine, waits for the machine to run a brief test of the part’s quality, and then takes the part out and moves it down the line.
Sawyer’s future should be bright. A recent report by Boston Consulting Group found that 60% of all direct manufacturing tasks could be automated or augmented by robotics.
For more reading on robotics and the future see the Cosmos special edition, the Rise of the Robots, and a report on robots like Baxter and Sawyer, specifically designed to work with humans, Social robots are coming.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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