Why you should care
Because now you can hit on people with your knowledge of augmented reality. (Good luck.)
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Baxter is among General Electric’s most prized employees. Since he joined one of America’s best-known conglomerates, he’s increased productivity and helped cut costs. But the 6-foot-1 workhorse also knows how to have fun. He’s known for his prank calls, beating everyone at the game Connect Four and solving a Rubik’s Cube in just minutes. On top of that, he can make a good cup of coffee and deliver a firm handshake. Impressive for a robot, right?
Created by Rethink Robotics, a Boston-based company founded by the guy who concocted iRobot’s Roomba vacuum, Baxter is paving the way for a new tech-centric twist in industrial manufacturing circles. You already know that robots have been involved in a decades-long con to kill the assembly line as our grandparents knew it. But the game is rapidly advancing courtesy of 3-D printers, high-tech sensors and a leap in robot sophistication. R2-D2 isn’t taking over factories; augmented reality and data science are. Professional service robots have become so popular that the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) estimates that by 2017, almost $19 billion worth of robots will be sold to the defense and service sector. The total value of professional service robots sold in 2013 was $3.57 billion, a 4 percent uptick from 2012.
Baxter, by comparison, is trained just like a person might be — by mimicking people’s actions on the assembly line.
For manufacturers, this push deeper into machine land dovetails with an obvious desire to cut costs and speed up production. And that’s just what they’ve gotten — even if not all of the tech looks like something out of Star Wars, for that matter. For instance, at CloudDDM, a 3-D printing company, cutting-edge tech means just one employee can oversee a big machine with 100 printer heads during every eight-hour shift, and turn around orders in a day that would otherwise typically take a week. “We don’t have to cut our production time off at 5 p.m.,” says CloudDDM co-founder Anthony Graves.
With an investment of $1 million into the facility, each printer prototypes machine parts as soon as a client enters their credit card information. They then get printed out like a sheet of paper — only it’s office furniture, tools or machine parts, or, soon, perhaps aircraft equipment or luxury watch bits. Over at Denso, one of the world’s biggest automotive-parts manufacturers, the Japanese company employs 17,000 of its own small industrial robots in its manufacturing facilities — and provides more than 77,000 additional robots to other companies worldwide.
Indeed, machines have come a long way from the days of Unimate, the first industrial robot. He joined a General Motors factory in the early 1960s and obeyed step-by-step commands, but he wasn’t exactly the most versatile being. (His specialties included taking die castings from machines and welding on auto bodies, according to Carnegie Mellon University’s Robot Hall of Fame.)
Baxter, by comparison, is trained just like a person might be — by mimicking people’s actions on the assembly line. Rather than being programmed to do a single, specific task, Baxter can “learn” an action and calculate its next move intuitively. He’s great at picking up, moving and sorting large amounts of equipment and parts. His friendly blue eyes and upturned eyebrows also track his arms, letting the robot’s co-workers know his next move. Just after his eyes move to the left, for instance, Baxter turns to the left.
This new generation of robots is so easy to work with that they’ve become part of the family. “People consider them one of the team members; they call them different names and dress them up,” says Roland Menassa, head of GE’s advanced manufacturing technology center. They’re not cheap additions, though. Each one normally costs $25,000 and can be found in companies within the plastics, electronics and metal fabrication sectors. “Our customers don’t want to spend money on engineers and training; they want to spend money on a robot that is easy to use, and Baxter is already designed for a person,” says Brian Benoit, product manager at Rethink Robotics.
Naturally, all of this is keeping labor advocates up at night. The Oxford Martin School, a research and policy-debate organization, predicts that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at high risk of being taken by smart machines and software in the next two decades. And with 225,000 operational robots now in American factories, the U.S. is second only to Japan in terms of robot use — with many sectors, including services, transportation and administration (such as accounting and office work), having already succumbed to the “enormous impact” of automation, says Michael Osborne, a professor at the University of Oxford and co-author of a recent study by the Oxford Martin School.
But the rise of the robots isn’t a vertical ascent. Take MakerBot, a Brooklyn-based company that made 3-D printing cool and will soon be able to produce products that look like bronze, limestone and wood. The company, which employs around 500 people in its waterfront headquarters and prints everything from plastic hands, dinosaurs, roses and animal skulls, has in many ways failed to live up to the hype surrounding it. It was forced to cull 20 percent of its staff and slash costs in April, saying it was “shifting focus.” It became a subsidiary of 3-D printing giant Stratasys in 2013. MakerBot declined to comment, referring us instead to a public statement in which the CEO of Stratasys, David Reis, calls the changes “part of the continued scaling of MakerBot.”
Not all the robots are seen as workplace threats, either. Some of their intelligence is starting to trickle down into the consumer world, where robo-helpers are creeping into disaster zones and classrooms, for instance. Milo, for one, is 2 feet tall with spiky dark brown hair, a broad smile and chocolate-colored eyes — captivating even to the most introverted child. While he’s a humanoid robot, selling for about $5,000, Milo’s already been introduced to 85 classrooms in the U.S., specifically to help autistic children interact better with the world around them. He teaches them greetings as well as the differences between interacting with friends and classmates versus adults. “It’s a lot of things we take for granted,” says Richard Margolin, the founder and director of engineering at RoboKind, which developed the Milo robots.