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Robotics: Changing Manufacturing Processes...and Facility Requirements

Today’s robotics are having an impact on the factory floor, in warehouse and distribution centers, and even in executive offices and homes.

Directory 2013
Robots like Baxter, from Rethink Robotics of Boston, Mass., pictured here, can be taught to do mundane tasks on the factory floor and even retrieve items and stack them onto pallets in the warehouse.
Robots like Baxter, from Rethink Robotics of Boston, Mass., pictured here, can be taught to do mundane tasks on the factory floor and even retrieve items and stack them onto pallets in the warehouse.
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Use in Logistics/ Distribution Settings
“There are a number of new trends in robotics,” says Dr. Henrik Christensen, director of Robotics at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “First of all, we see a spreading of use from big companies to smaller firms. Second, the new robotics have a greater degree of flexibility and can perform more complex tasks. Third, the lower prices of new entries into the robotics lines have made them accessible to all size firms. Finally, robotics have moved from the manufacturing floor to logistics and distribution supply settings.”

Dr. Christensen makes reference to the new robot, Baxter, being debuted by Rethink Robotics of Boston, Massachusetts, which is designed for easy use and can be put to work right out of the box with minimum setup. Baxter promises to revolutionize manufacturing and comes with an enticing price of $22,000 — versus $100,000–$300,000 for the typical industrial robot plus programming costs.

Rethink Robotics: Meet Baxter

Baxter comes pre-programmed to perform certain tasks such as sorting parts, but can be taught to load, unload, grasp, and perform other mundane tasks as well. The vision capability via cameras allows Baxter to learn tasks after being shown how to do them once. Closer to an Android than the typical robot, Baxter has two-arms and a head with facial expressions. Dr. Christensen also notes that Kiva Systems LLC, of North Reading, Massachusetts, is revolutionizing the warehousing, distribution center, and fulfillment process with its robotic handling systems. Autonomous mobile robots and control software shorten cycle times, reduce labor requirements, and drive down costs. “Having an employee walk back and forth to get parts or packages is not very efficient. With the Kiva System, a single employee can control multiple robots that retrieve the items desired, stack them on pallets, and shrink wrap the pallets — all without heavy lifting by humans,” explains Dr. Christensen.

Impacting Facility Layouts and More

“This also impacts facility layout and requirements,” Dr. Christensen adds. “For example, robots can travel down narrower aisles and reach higher than humans or humans with forklifts, thus reducing the footprint needed for warehousing and facilities cost. You can build up rather than out.”

Dr. Christensen’s predicts an enormous amount of growth in robotics in the next few years. “The lower price-points mean any company will be able to afford the advantages of robotics. They help optimize the system with 24/7 operation, incur less downtime, and eliminate errors.”

Even venture capitalists are getting into the action. This past June, Russian Dmitry Grishin launched Grishin Robotics, New York City’s first venture capital firm strictly devoted to the mass market of personal robotics. The strategy revolves around the scenario where robots not only appear on the factory floor, but also in the executive suite and home.

The nation’s education system is gearing up for the robotics revolution too. “We work closely with schools to make sure the students’ experience is as close to the actual workplace as possible,” says Lincoln Electric’s Percio. “Our creative engineering team developed a folding welding envelope so it can enter a classroom for instructional purposes. Our 3-D virtual reality welding simulator used in schools gives the student a real-time, hands-on experience as close to the actual robotic work as possible.”

Robotics point to the future, but savvy companies are finding ways to leverage the revolution now.
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