Baxter is not your typical robot. That may sound strange, but in a world where robots are becoming more common on assembly lines, in manufacturing plants and shipping centers, Baxter takes robotics to a new level.
"Baxter was unlike anything we'd ever seen," said Chris Budnick, president of Vanguard Plastics Corporation.
Vanguard is a precision injection molding company in Southington, Conn., that supplies components for a wide variety of companies. Budnick's firm recently tried out the Baxter robot and was blown away. "He's fast, he's accurate and he did a great job."
Baxter is the latest creation from Rethink Robotics, founded by the same inventor — Rodney Brooks — who came up with the Roomba vacuum cleaner. It's unlike most other robots because it's designed to work side by side with humans and can be easily programmed to perform a number of tasks. Perhaps the biggest difference between Baxter and other robots is its price. It will sell between $20,000 and $25,000. (More:15 Surprising Global Technology Cities)
"Baxter will pay for itself in about a year when you factor in how much it will improve our productivity," said Budnick.
Robots have become commonplace on shop floors and assembly lines around the world, especially in auto plants. In many cases they are large, moving quickly and separated from humans by barriers to ensure nobody gets hurt.
Most robots also require complex codes and computer programming to complete their designated tasks. Throw in the fact they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and you see why smaller manufacturers have not yet brought robots into their plants.
"This is really aimed at small manufacturers, where they might get one robot for every three or four production workers to do the simple tasks and let the people who are much more dexterous and cognitive do the more complex tasks," said Brooks.
Brooks said Baxter's true selling point is that it's easy for almost anyone to program. "This lets ordinary people use robots and the reason we can do it now is that the cost of sensors has come down dramatically." (More:Super-Eco: The New Standard in Sustainability)
For Vanguard Plastics, Baxter is part of the company's future plans. Budnick says by early next year he will put Baxter alongside workers as they take molded plastic cups and stack them on a conveyor belt to be bagged.
While you might expect the workers at Vanguard to be worried about Baxter replacing them, Budnick said that's not a concern. "Baxter won't replace any of our people. Instead, he'll make our people better and let them focus on more complex jobs."