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Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Rethink Robotics: Made in U.S.A.

At the ongoing IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, ICRA 2013 in Karlsruhe, Germany, plenary talks are live webcasted, making it easy for everyone to listen to some of the worlds most famous roboticists. One of these is professor Rodney Brooks, founder, chairman, and CTO of Rethink Robotics, Inc. who gave a talk entitled "A new class of industrial robot."
Brooks,former director of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab,  starts with explaining why robots are now ready to take off. The main reasons are because computers and sensors have gotten exponentially cheaper for the last 50 years, but also because research in computer vision and in simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) have made major strides in the last 10 years. Further more certain tasks robots have passed a usability that makes them useful to untrained people. Then he reviews his insights from consumer and military robotics at iRobot and explains the displacement of "low cost" US manufacturing since WW2 to Asia and why reshoring makes sense. Brooks argues that reshoring helps manufacturers to develop more responsive, short supply chains, brings innovation closer to manufacturing and reduces intellectual property and regulatory compliance risk. He also claims that productivity beats cheap labor and higher transportation costs can be avoided
With the new generation industrial robots, Brooks and his company will redefine how small, mid-size and large domestic manufacturers use automation to compete with manufacturers in low-cost regions of the world.  His latest dual-armed robot, Baxter, Made in USA, is capable of applying common sense behavior to manufacturing environments and safe enough to work shoulder-to-shoulder with people.  Brooks claims that Baxter is the first mass-produced sentient robot that works with people and helps them to be more productive. The $22k robot can be easily integrated into existing manufacturing workflow and can be instantly useful. By introducing robots into places that have not been automated before manufacturers can become more efficient, workers become more productive, and jobs be kept from migrating overseas.  Brooks promotes Baxter as a robot ready to be used on the factory floor in less than one hour. No programming expertise is required because the robot can be trained like a human worker The robot can perform a wide range of simple tasks, adapts automatically to changes in its environment and can work safely side-by-side with humans.  The robot is designed to be manufacturable with support of a distributed supply chain with specialist for different robot modules. Testing and calibration is integrated throughout the supply chain and computation is used to replace precision of manufacturing. The result is an inexpensive  user friendly, adaptive, safe robot for small and medium-seized companies. 
Rethink Robotics is funded ($62 million) by Charles River Ventures, Highland Capital Partners, Sigma Partners, Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Bezos Expeditions, the personal investment company of Jeff Bezos.

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