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what in the world is a collaborative robot? (part 2 of 3)

in rethinking robotics, robots @ work by Eric Foellmer

In part 2 of my 3-part ‘What in the world is a Collaborative Robot?’ blog, I’ll examine a bit of the history around this revolutionary category of automation, how collaborative robots typically differ from their industrial counterparts, and how a certain robot called Baxter is unique to both industrial robots and other collaborative robots.  Click here to catch up on part 1 of this blog. 

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Why have collaborative robots only recently been made available?

Part of that answer is technology-driven.  Certain technologies, such as the series elastic actuators Rethink Robotics invented to help minimize our robot’s force of contact, simply didn’t exist until recently.  Computer processing power has also improved over time, to the point that complex control algorithms can be executed much more quickly now, allowing safer, more responsive controls performance.   Plus, the price of certain components, such as sensors, is far lower today than it was even a few years ago, thanks to their widespread use in consumer electronics equipment.  This has helped collaborative robot manufacturers to reduce their COGS and pass those savings along to their customers.

Another part of the answer is market-driven.  For many small companies in particular, robots have never really been a cost-effective option.  Many of those companies have, out of sheer financial necessity, opted to outsource their manufacturing processes to lower-cost regions around the world.  But rising global labor rates and a desire to keep manufacturing processes in-house have contributed to the increasing demand for lower cost, safer and more flexible automation technologies such as collaborative robots.

How do collaborative robots compare to more traditional industrial SCARA robots?

Traditional industrial robots excel at applications that require extremely high speeds, heavy payloads and extreme precision.  They are reliable and very useful for many types of high volume, low mix applications.  But they pose several inherent challenges for higher mix environments, particularly in smaller companies.  First and foremost, they are very expensive, particularly when considering programming and integration costs.  They require specialized engineers working over several weeks or even months to program and integrate them to do a single task.  And they don’t multi-task easily between jobs since that setup effort is so substantial.  Plus, they can’t be readily integrated into a production line with people because they are too dangerous to operate in close proximity to humans.

For small manufacturers with limited budgets, space and staff, a collaborative robot such as Baxter is an ideal fit because it overcomes many of these challenges.  It’s extremely intuitive, integrates seamlessly with other automation technologies, is very flexible and is quite affordable with a base price of only $25,000.  As a result, Baxter is well suited for many applications, such as those requiring manual labor and a high degree of flexibility, that are currently unmet by traditional technologies.

What makes Baxter unique?

Baxter is a groundbreaking technology that differs not only from traditional industrial robots, but from other collaborative robots as well.  It is by far the safest, easiest, most flexible and least costly robot of its kind today.  It features a sophisticated multi-tier safety design that includes a smooth, polymer exterior with fewer pinch points; back-drivable joints that can be rotated by hand; and series elastic actuators which help it to minimize the likelihood of injury during inadvertent contact. 

It’s also incredibly simple to use.  Line workers and other non-engineers can quickly learn to train the robot themselves, by hand.  With Baxter, the robot itself is the interface, with no teaching pendant or external control system required.  And with its ease of use and diverse skill set, Baxter is extremely flexible, capable of being utilized across multiple lines and tasks in a fraction of the time and cost it would take to re-program other robots.  Plus, Baxter is made in the U.S.A., which is a particularly appealing aspect for many of our customers looking to re-shore their own production operations.

In my third and final blog in this series, I’ll cover what I think needs to happen before collaborative robots become an automation solution of choice among manufacturers everywhere, as well as where I think we’ll start to see the most collaborative robots being adopted in the coming decade. 

Thanks for collaborating.  Stay tuned.

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About the Author

Eric Foellmer

As Rethink Robotics’ Manager of Product Marketing and Marketing Communications, Eric’s job is to tell the company's remarkable story to the world – through our website, sales tools, videos, and the many events where Baxter and Sawyer are featured. When he’s not hanging out with robots, he enjoys hanging out with his family, surfing iTunes, playing golf or watching the Red Sox.



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