Is Baxter Increasing Production or Replacing Humans?

Baxter is a new manufacturing robot from Rethink Robotics. It is created to perform the menial repetitive tasks that occur at an assembly line such as picking items of a conveyor belt. Baxter is expected to increase the productivity of U.S. manufacturers and help them retain business that would otherwise migrate overseas.

Rodney Brooks with Baxter

The red and charcoal-gray Baxter goes on sale October 2012. Baxter has five cameras, a sonar sensor that detects motion 360 degrees around it, and can learn tasks within an hour. It is also very cheap in comparison to other assembly-line robots which can cost $200,00 each. At $22,000 a unit, Baxter is the equivalent paying a human $4 an hour for three years of eight-hour shifts.

Other assembly-line robots can be dangerous, so they are often isolated in cages away from employees. Baxter however, is designed to work safely alongside workers and can be set down safely almost anywhere on a factory floor. Its eyes are on a swiveling computer screen and greet any worker who approaches. To teach Baxter a job, a human simply grabs its arms, simulates the desired task, and presses a button to set the pattern. Baxter will also be upgradable. The company plans to update Baxter’s software for free every few months, enabling more complex behaviors such as two-handed manipulation.

Rethink Robotics’ origins date back to the 1990s when founder Rodney Brooks got an unwelcome taste of the realities of the global supply chain as the cost of shipping products overseas rose along with the price of oil. Rethink Robotics was conceived as an attempt to change the economics of manufacturing.

Baxter is designed to make U.S. workers more productive than their foreign rivals. However, worker production is not really a problem. According to IHS, U.S. companies produce about $2 trillion worth of goods annually while China produces $2.2 trillion. U.S. companies also do it with a tenth of the manpower as China. America’s manufacturing issues are more than just productivity. Companies use overseas manufacturers because they’re cheaper and nearer the rest of their supply chain.

There is also the fear that Baxter could replace U.S. workers. Rethink Chief Executive Officer Scott Eckert compares Baxter to the arrival of the personal computer. He says it effectively turns workers from menial laborers into robot managers. So the question remains. Is Baxter really going to keep jobs in the U.S. or will companies continue to use overseas manufacturers. If U.S. companies do decide to use Baxter instead of overseas manufacturers, then will U.S. workers simply be replaced? Its tough to say but Rodney Brooks seems to believe Baxter is the future to saving U.S. jobs and manufacturing.

Businessweek Article