Today, 80 percent of car manufacturing is completed via robot, which makes perfect sense. The first industrial robots were sold into auto factories in the 1960s and made the already efficient assembly line systems work even more smoothly than before.
Of course, with the first robots came fear. Will this mechanical beast steal my job? Is it even safe to be around this thing? Will it rise up against me? The answers were “not yet,” “probably not,” and “you watch too many sci-fi movies.”
Historically, people and robots in commercial settings have been kept at arm’s length—with good reason. First, robots often handle tasks too dangerous for humans. Second, the robots’ own strength and speed make their presence a potential safety hazard. Only recently have our robotic companions reached the point at which they can work side-by-side with humans.
The first industrial robot, introduced at a GM factory in Trenton, N.J. in 1961, handled hot and heavy die-cast parts and accessories and moved them from one place on the assembly line to another. Oh, and the swinging hydraulic arm, called Unimate, weighed about two tons.
Even now, most robots built to assist shipping and warehouse workers are so burly that they can bear loads humans can only dream of. Amazon fulfillment centers use the KIVA system, a stock-retrieval robot capable of covering 12 miles and 30,000 shipments a day. The Fuji-Ace Pallister is designed to lift heavy bags of materials, such as phosphate, on and off of shipping pallets; it can move up to 2,400 bags in an hour. And automatic forklifts from companies like SeeGrid and Egemin Automation take on one of the most dangerous of warehouse activities (context: one of every six workplace fatalities involves a forklift).
Farming robots are a little behind the curve, as the delicacy of their work presents unique challenges. These robots need precise control and a soft touch to pick crops without damaging them, and, at the same time, require heightened sensitivity to detect ripeness. But no matter what, by sheer nature of their work, the robots sport some rather uninviting appendages. No one wants to see the business end of a gripper or blade, but those parts are what allow agro-bots to do their jobs. For instance, the grips that milk cows or scissors that clip strawberries could do some serious damage.
But as robots continue to advance, they’ll get safer. Over time, refinements in control schemes—say, trading magnetically controlled actuators for microprocessors, or the addition of small, responsive electric drive motors and laser guidance—have made sharing space with a robot far less imposing. Signs of this started to appear early on. The Stanford Arm, which debuted in the mid 1970s, was computerized and able to manipulate objects well enough to assemble car parts.
The modern-day flagship of that change is Baxter, an assembly-line robot developed by ReThink Robotics. Baxter is the brainchild of former iRobot head Rodney Brooks. The 6-foot-tall robot, the first of which was deployed at Vanguard Plastics in 2012, is among the first able to work alongside its human colleagues, and learn from them in the process. A person teaches Baxter how to complete a task by simply moving his arms through the process. Computer vision allows the robot to recognize objects on the fly, no matter their orientation. For example, Baxter can recognize a part from any angle, not just a pre-programmed one, making it more adaptable and therefore safer for humans to be around.
Since its launch, Baxter has found a home in many factories, where it collaborates with humans, rather than replacing or imposing upon them. At Koller-Craft Plastics, for one, Baxter handles the packaging of products, freeing up his flesh-and-blood colleagues to focus on more complicated tasks. Meanwhile, a recent upgrade to the platform allows Baxter to learn landmarks within a facility, so can move and position itself.
Baxter’s primary competition, the UR5 and UR10 robotic arms from Denmark-based Universal Robots, contains intelligence that protects human coworkers. A patented system tracks the current passing through the arm’s joints; a collision translates to a change in force, signaling the arm to stop in its path to keep from inflicting damage or injury.
It’s still early days for this new generation of “co-bots,” but factories are already reaping the benefits of their programmability and adaptability. But the potential is clear, inciting Rethink to release an academic version of Baxter and a software development kit, which could one day lead to an app store for robots. That means Baxters of the future might learn not only from humans, but also from one another.