Production robots fit right in with human teams

Baxter is an interactive production robot that can work safely among human workers and is flexible enough to adapt to a changing environment.

Baxter is an interactive production robot that can work safely among human workers and is flexible enough to adapt to a changing environment.

Imagine bringing a new employee on board that can multitask, will not require expenditure on a new work space, is particularly mindful of workplace health and safety, and will fit in harmoniously with a valued team.

And if the new employee presents for work completely legless or off their face every day, well, you are entitled to shove them around a little or mess with their head. However being legless or off their face in fact does not adversely affect their productivity, since they are are getting help with and ongoing therapy for any other issues they may have. Jenny Pretorius reports.

The potential new employee is Baxter, an interactive production robot based on the premise that a robot should work among human workers safely and be flexible enough to adapt to a changing environment. At 6ft tall from the top of the 360-degree sonar and front camera that sit on its head to the bottom of the four roller coasters on which it moves around, the humanoid robot weighs about 80kg and has two arms that each has vision capability; a reach of 261cm; seven degrees of movement; and end effectors that can be changed in five minutes to suit its application.

Its rectangular LCD screen can be used to program it; can show its humans what its camera is inputting into its computer, or in other words, where its activities are focused; or interact with its human through displaying two eyes that have a repertoire of six expressions. It cannot talk or respond to voice commands yet, but there is some early R&D on this so voice command technology could be seen in the future.

Designed by Rethink Robotics in the US, Baxter is a complete system of hardware, software, controls, safety, and sensors all integrated into the unit. It runs on the proprietary Rethink Intera 3 software. Baxter was introduced in September 2012 with the first units shipped out in 2013. It has been working in a wide range of commercial applications across the US, Australia, and other markets since. It is particularly suitable for application in material handling; line loading; machine tending; packing and unpacking; light assembly; finishing operations; and light machine cleaning duties.

Engineering and innovation company kanDO Innovation from Mt Wellington in Auckland recently became the distributor and integrator for Baxter in New Zealand. The company welcomed the first humanoid robot Kiwi citizen into New Zealand late last year for application testing and in-house training of its sales engineers to customise, maintain and repair the robot.

kanDO business development manager Ash Taylor says the kanDo team is excited by the potential Baxter offers and has had a lot of enquiries. “It is particularly suitable for New Zealand conditions. It is flexible, safe, and easy to run and maintain. It offers extraordinary compatibility, capability, and flexibility for a robot in its class and compared to traditional robotic and automation solutions is surprisingly affordable for many SMEs in New Zealand,” he says

He explains what his comment means. Baxter, as a new type of automation option, sells for less than half the price of a similar conventional robot and could pay for itself in one year or less. It runs of a standard power supply. “Having worked with robotics and automation across a range of industries, we’re used to working with expensive automation solutions. Many SME companies perceive that automation options are going to be too expensive and will require reconfiguring the factory floor. It is not the case; Baxter fits into their existing floor space right alongside their human workers.”

In the second instance, Baxter is flexible. Its pedestal has locking casters for mobility and stability and it can be wheeled around the factory floor to cover multiple applications rather than just covering one automation task in a permanently stationary position. “You physically have to move him around, but there is current development being undertaken for Baxter to wheel himself to different work stations as required through visual recognition of locator symbols,” Mr Taylor says.

Baxter can be trained for multiple applications easily by programming it on the console in its head area. The applicable end effectors can be changed in a few minutes – with a range of effectors available including suction – and is to a large extent plug and play. kanDO can customise end effectors to New Zealand owners’ specifications and the application requirement.

The seven degrees of movement freedom per arm gives it maximum flexibility and range – Baxter can work in a 360 degrees zone, reaching behind itself to do its tasks. Its compliant joints have force sensing and force control for increased safety. Vision guided movement and object detection ensures its precision. “Baxter could be packing boxes in the morning and then in the afternoon sort out parts from each other or do light assembly work across the factory floor,” Mr Taylor says.

And what truly puts Baxter in its own class is it is constantly being updated through industry feedback with new downloadable software releases. This behaviour-based intelligence gives it common-sense operation. Together with its sensors that detect human presence, this makes it flexible enough to work safely alongside humans.

Mr Taylor comments: “Baxter will stop on human contact – it pauses its activity and will wait for its operating zone to become clear before resuming, compared to other automation options that will simply move right through humans. Through its sensors it knows when the human moves away and can resume its activities – the basis of collaborative robotics.” And with Baxter’s face displaying its feelings – fortunately never anger – its human colleagues get used to it as part of the team quickly.

The origin of the name is apt. Its creators had a naming competition among their 70 employees, settling on Baxter, an Old English name derived from baker, a hardworking and indispensable craftsman. kanDO has had a lot of serious interest, amongst others from a packaging plant, a manufacturing company, and a stationery company. Visit and to see Baxter at work.