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Baxter in Action: The Early Returns


Baxter performs a pick-and-place operation at Rodon Inc., Hatfield, Pa.
Photo courtesy of Rodon

Mark Shortt
Editorial Director
Design-2-Part Magazine

The early returns on Baxter, a collaborative and adaptive robot from Rethink Robotics, show it finding a home with small, mid-size, and large U.S. injection molders

Baxter, the new robot from Boston-based Rethink Robotics that began shipping in January, is reported to be "the first robot with common sense to increase productivity and efficiency in manufacturing environments." Designed to bring affordable automation to manufacturers of all sizes, Baxter requires no integration or programming. Along with its collaborative capability and a list price of $22,000, one of the robot's most distinguishing features is a unique user interface (UI) that allows non-technical personnel to train it to do specific tasks from light assembly to machine tending.

"One of the things about him is the face—have you seen the face?" asked Al Cotton, spokesperson for Nypro, one of Baxter's early adopters, in a recent phone interview. "That face really makes a big difference; he makes people feel comfortable, and he can give you an expression that says an awful lot. You don't have to wait for the red light to go off or for the horn to sound; Baxter scowls and you know you better fix the problem fast. So there's a psychology involved in working with Baxter that I think is very positive to the success of the product."

Nypro (www.nypro.com), a large precision molder for customers in the healthcare, packaging, and consumer electronics industries, has been involved with robots for decades, and is one of the first companies to bring Baxter into its operations. "We knew a couple of people involved in developing Baxter, and we have a director on the Board who's an MIT professor, and he knew a lot about robots," said Cotton.  According to Cotton, Nypro was the first American molder to use mobile robots from Japan in the late '60s and early '70s, and currently uses an industrial robot on every one of its injection molding machines.

"Most of the industrial robots are pick-and-place robots—robots that pick parts out of a machine and place them onto a conveyor or into a box," said Cotton. "Baxter is much more of an individualized robot that does a lot more than an industrial robot; it really simulates an operator. So this is certainly something new, but we were happy to be at the forefront of it."

Nypro, long headquartered in Clinton, Mass., was acquired by Jabil Circuit, Inc., of St. Petersburg, Fla., in July. The company is currently using Baxter in a number of test areas before employing it commercially, and has initiated a contest with several of its plants to come up with different applications that they'd like Baxter to perform. Most of those are assembly-type applications, Cotton said. "It's being placed from one plant to another in the different applications, and then the one that is able to prove the most effective application is going to win the robot," he said. "So it's gone through an initial R&D test that determined that it's appropriate for Nypro, but now we're going through the actual individual plants to determine who can really make the best use of it."

Cotton believes that Baxter will help Nypro compete more effectively with overseas manufacturers by making its manufacturing operation more flexible while opening up new opportunities. "It gives you capability you didn't have; that's the big thing," he said. "It really replaces—I shouldn't even say replaces—it creates new opportunities because it allows you to do things that people really haven't been able to do. It allows you to do extremely repetitive activities that you haven't been able to ask people to do. Baxter can do a very difficult hand movement at extremely high speeds that you and I could maybe do for 30 seconds and then we'd be heading for the chiropractor. But Baxter can do it all day. So there are certain things that you can do that you couldn't do before Baxter.

"There are some cases where you're replacing something a person was doing, but more often, it's doing something that nobody was able to do, and now you're coming up with a new motion," he continued. "Because Baxter can go forward and back, and also can tell you when things aren't working right. So you can put Baxter right next to an operator; whereas, with an industrial robot, you have to have a lot of space, and you put a big cage around them, and you have all kinds of bells and whistles so that people don't get hurt by it. But Baxter can sit at the next bench right beside you at the workspace, and you can be doing something that's appropriate for you to do, and Baxter can be doing the thing that you can't do."

Rethink's continual development of Baxter relies on close interaction with users, such as Nypro, who provide feedback and ideas on how the robot can be improved. "A big part of our work with them, and, I think, their work with everybody, is developmental," said Cotton. "They've asked us for ideas, and we've given them a lot of ideas. Baxter is a work in progress, and a big part of what they do is to try to identify all the appropriate motions because they have to program all those motions into Baxter. So first, they need to know what kind of motions you want it to do before they program it. They're always adding new motions and new capabilities to Baxter, and most of those "adds" come from people in the field giving them suggestions. We do that constantly."

Nypro's contest to determine which plant can use the robot most effectively will be wrapping up at the end of the summer. Does the company have plans to add a certain number of robots to its operations when the contest is completed? "I don't think they're going to know until they're completely done with the contest," Cotton said, "but they're expecting to utilize several of them."

Rodon, Inc. (www.rodongroup.com), a plastic injection molder specializing in small parts in high volumes, has embraced the use of automation in its manufacturing operations and is one of the earliest adopters of Baxter. A Hatfield, Pa.-based subsidiary of K'NEX Brands, L.P., Rodon is a medium-size company that operates more than 100 injection molding presses at its 125,000 square foot facility, manufacturing more than 95 percent of the parts for the K'NEX building toy system. It's also one of the largest family-owned and operated injection molders in the United States.

In an effort to keep abreast of the latest manufacturing technologies, the company's senior management team had been looking for next generation robots for a number of years and discovered Baxter at a tradeshow, said Michael Araten, Rodon's president and CEO.

"We were looking at a particular series of applications around simple assembly and quality control, and after the demonstration, we did a little more research and felt that these robots might be able to learn," he said. "And given the fairly disruptive price point that they're available at, we could make some investments, and if we're wrong, obviously, the downside was not super high, and if we're right, the potential upside is dramatic."

In addition to using Baxter, Rodon deploys simple pick-and-place robots at the most basic level, as well as multi-axis robots that do more complicated packaging, depending on the application. But Baxter provides more flexibility than Rodon's other robots in a number of ways. Besides being able to work safely side-by-side with Rodon team members, it's very mobile and can be transferred to different projects in the same day. Also, its cost of under $30,000 per unit puts Baxter well within the price range of many small and mid-size manufacturing companies. That combination of affordability and flexibility, particularly for projects that require interaction with people, helps Rodon compete more effectively with overseas manufacturers, according to Araten.

"When I think about the main advantage that overseas manufacturers have, really, it's their low labor rate," he says. "What we're looking to do is take that advantage away. We have 100-plus presses today, and our average shift has five or six operators. So we're taking the labor component largely out of the manufacturing process and putting it in the skilled component—design of the parts, design of the tools, building of tools—where it's necessary and where it makes sense. But in the actual, more rote production activities, these kinds of robots can make sense."

Baxter is currently helping to pack the K'NEX construction toys, specifically tracks for the Mario Kart Wii racing sets. It's also being used to pack a retail package for a lip balm company's special holiday package. "It comes out of a very clear kind of plastic, so we want to make sure that it doesn't get scratched," said Araten. So [Baxter] is able to be very gentle and pack in a certain configuration that is very user friendly for the customer when they get it. What we plan to teach it next is simple assembly of certain component parts—for example, a latch, a spring, or a lock for a window. There might be three or four small parts, and it could assemble them right in line, and be able to go to packaging from there."

"We're in the early days, but early days are proving that there's a lot of powerful software built into this thing, and the learning aspect of it is working well," he continued. "People without any computer training are able to show the robot what to do and, within an hour—and even less in some cases—have it doing it. So it's very exciting, and that's where we are so far."

Araten believes that as more and more manufacturers begin to use Baxter, it could have a significant impact in convincing product manufacturers to do their work here in the U.S., as opposed to going overseas.

"I think it's another factor that helps the decision to come here because what I think many companies are doing is looking at their total supply chain costs," he said. "And so as wages continue to go up overseas, and as shipping rates continue to go up from overseas to here, then you have this delta thing: Am I really getting the savings that I think I am? Then, once you look at your total supply chain costs, any time that you can do automation allows you to say, ‘OK, once I make this investment, if I can recoup that investment in a reasonable period of time, then I have flexibility because now my supply chain is shorter.' So I have that, and it hasn't really cost me any more because I now have efficiencies with this upfront investment."

If Rodon had acquired another piece of new equipment, Araten might be happy to see a return on investment of a year or two. But with Baxter, he's anticipating an even quicker payback.

"We think we can get paid back in less than a year because it can work 24 hours a day, as long as it's got power coming to it. That's a huge advantage, and something that we think is just transforming, frankly, mid-size manufacturers around the U.S. So when you couple that with the energy boom that we're having, and it looks like we're going to continue to have, then having more things run on power is even more advantageous as power costs go down."

Has Araten noticed anything about Baxter that he might like to see enhanced or improved down the road?

"Yes, I would say speed. Right now, it's only designed to work at about one-third of human speed. Where, the other robots we have, frankly, are working at, probably, three, five, 10 times human speed. So the speed component, I think, over time, is something that we definitely want to work on, but I think that will happen. Again, even with that slower speed, because of its ability to work 24 hours, you're at least getting the equivalent of a person's work in a day. But I would say that's the biggest thing. Frankly, it's still early days and we're still figuring out what else we want it to do before we're trying to improve too much of it."

Vanguard Plastics, a small custom injection molder in Southington, Conn., got involved with Baxter by "pure, unadulterated accident," said Chris Budnick, president of the company. "We had a salesperson come in who was looking to sell some conveyors, and they were, at the time, in negotiations with what's now called Rethink Robotics to distribute their robot. They asked us if we would be interested in acting as a beta site for it. Of course, we jumped at the opportunity because we always like to try new things. That's how it happened. It just kind of landed here in Southington and we grabbed the opportunity."

Did Budnick have any idea of the capabilities of the Baxter robot and what it might be able to do for his molding operation?

"Oh yes, absolutely; we knew," he said. "We saw it when it wasn't ready for release; it was in an advanced prototype phase. Its capabilities were impressive, as was the intended price point, and we think that it could be a good fit in our company and in our industry."

Baxter's first job at Vanguard was a relatively simple task, a basic pick-and-place operation that had it lifting a part from a moving conveyor and placing it into an array on a table. Noticeably absent was the protective caging that surrounds traditional industrial robots to prevent them from accidentally injuring employees while performing their tasks. "I don't have to have all that extra guarding around it, and that's a big space saver," Budnick said. As he and his team watched Baxter in action, a number of the robot's attributes—particularly its flexibility and ease of programming—convinced them that Baxter was a good fit for their molding operation.

"It's much easier to program," he said. "I could teach you how to run it, or Rethink could teach you how to run it—how to make a simple pick and place program with it—in about 10 minutes," he said. "Everybody in the factory, from technicians to quality control, to shipping and receiving to machine operators, was able to program it to do something simple.

"It's not designed to be the fastest robot; it's not designed to be the most accurate robot; it's not that," he continued. "It's all about ease of programming and flexibility. You can change tasks with it if you want. Our initial deployment will be a fixed task, where it'll get assigned something for about 6,000 hours a year. We're going to see how it runs, and then we'll go from there."

Baxter, a "common sense" robot, employs cameras, sonar, and sensors that enable it to see and react to its environment. "If it sees an array that's not standard, or not in the right position, then it can kind of skip that," said Budnick. "If it gets nudged, or somebody bumps into the robot and moves it 6 inches, by accident, it can compensate for that with the cameras. It's looking for the cups; it's not looking for an X-Y fixed coordinate. Inside its field of view, it's looking for a stack of cups. So wherever they end up in its field of view, it's going to go and grab them.

"It can shift around, it can handle variability; whereas, a traditional robot isn't going to be able to do that," he continued. A traditional robot is going to go a certain coordinate, and it's going to do what it's supposed to do at that coordinate, then it's going to move to another coordinate and do what it does there. Obviously, they all have sensors on them to know if it completed the task or not. But if you move, by a couple of millimeters, the object that it's supposed to pick, a normal robot would probably fault out unless it had compliant tooling and that kind of thing. So Baxter can see its environment and then adjust off of that, and I think that capability will get better and better as the product matures."

At Vanguard, Baxter will be picking up where it left off in beta testing, playing a role within a larger, integrated system that includes an all-electric injection molding press, a Wittman robot, a conveyor, and a bagging machine. Each link in the system, including the bagger, has I/O capability. "Everything's going to get connected together to form a system, just like you would with a peripheral for your computer," Budnick said. "Everything works together; it's not a centralized, master control system. The Wittman doesn't run the cell, and Baxter doesn't run the cell. They're all independent, but if one faults out, then everything shuts down."

The Wittman robot takes the parts from the injection molding machine and places them on the conveyor in an array, and then stacks them 10 high. Then Baxter will take the stacks of 10 and feed them into an automated bagging machine (bagger), which will seal the parts. A human being will then pack the sealed bags into a box in the final step of the process. Eventually, Budnick would like to be able use Baxter to put the parts in boxes, but that capability will require some further development.

"We aren't going to use it for boxing right away, but that was one of the things it needed to do," he said when asked if he'd noticed anything about the robot's performance during beta testing that he'd like to see improved. "It needed to be able to get down into the corner of a box, so its end-of-arm tooling or its design has to be able to accommodate placing a part in the corner of a box in the future."

Another area that he'd like to see upgraded down the line is Baxter's vision. "You can put all different levels of vision on it if you wanted to," he said. "This [version] has a real basic vision system on it, but the cost of vision is coming down, so we anticipate a higher and higher quality level of situational awareness for the robot as it develops.

"We believe in ‘crawl, walk, and then run,'" Budnick said by way of explaining his expectations for Baxter's performance. "Do I think it's going to be perfect right when it gets delivered? No. There'll be things that we learn, there'll be things that Rethink learns, there will be things that the integrator learns, and, over time, Baxter will continue to improve and get better and better. Whenever you have a new technology or something that's very new, like this, you can't expect the sun, the moon, and the stars. You have to think, ‘Let me get it running, and then, let me get it performing the task I want it to perform at a certain rate, and then we'll work on increasing the rate and adding complexity to it as we go along.'"

Vanguard will be putting Baxter through its paces faster than most users, Budnick said, adding that he expects the robot to accumulate 6,000 hours of use during its first year in operation. The company will be providing feedback to Rethink on Baxter's performance, along with a wish list of additional features. It's all part of a continuous feedback loop that Rethink has initiated in order to design and build robots customized to manufacturers' unique needs.

Software upgrades will be key to determining the robot's future functionality and capabilities. "One of the things Rethink is working on now is picking and placing in different axes," he added. "Right now, it's only the Z axis, so if we wanted to be able to pick off of a conveyor and then rotate 90 degrees and place [the part] onto a shelf, it doesn't have that capability yet. But they're working on that capability right now. So that's a software modification that they're already working on at Rethink."

This technical information has been contributed by
Rethink Robotics

Click here to find suppliers

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