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The landscape of manufacturing is constantly changing.  In developed countries, the reliance on heavy manufacturing is declining and factories use fewer dirty, dull and dangerous processes. These roles are instead becoming automated, with robots working alongside humans to maximise efficiency.

Computer vision is one technology that has gained popularity in factories around the world. Using machine vision standardises quality control and removes human error. As a camera scans over a production line, its picks up faults or flaws in the products and marks them for removal.  A team of engineers from Imperial College is even working on a ‘bionic eye’ with an artificial retina. The ‘eye’ learns on the job, and recognises and removes faulty products on the assembly line.

Another solution is having a fully-automated assistant to help you out on the factory floor. Brought to life by Rethink Robotics, Baxter is a smart, collaborative manufacturing robot. Able to operate outside of traditional safety cages, he works directly with people, taking on repetitive or high-risk jobs.  With Intera 3 software, Baxter can be trained instead of programmed. This saves time and cuts essential production costs.  With flexible arms and interchangeable accessories, this robot can be easily repurposed around the floor for different tasks. He even comes with ‘force detection’, allowing the robotic arms to ‘feel’ for issues on the line.

A softer approach

Traditional robots do have some characteristic drawbacks. Sturdy metal grippers are useful in some factories, but a heavy-handed approach is not always ideal.  Rigid ‘fingers’ can make it tricky for robots to grasp smaller objects without squashing them. Engineers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab may have found a solution using silicone.

The team have 3D printed a robotic hand made from silicone; the soft, rubbery material commonly found in kitchenware and sealants. Each of the hand’s three fingers contains a sensor that can detect the size and shape of an object to identify it.  As the ‘fingers’ bend to pick up the item, sensors relay this information back to a central computer. The exact position of each of the three sensors allows the robot to distinguish between items.

The rubbery gripper comes from the emerging field of ‘soft robotics’, making squishy, bendy robots that surpass their metallic counterparts. To make them move, air bubbles are pushed though the silicone fingers. This causes them to bend and curl as the rubber stretches, pinching together to pick up objects.  The MIT team fitted the soft gripper to a Baxter robot, testing it against it’s original ‘hands’. The silicone gripper proved far more successful, even picking up thin and fragile objects such as paper, CDs and a drinks can.

As more technologies hit the market to improve automation, we are likely to see a greater number of robots working in factories. But do we need to worry about robots putting people out of work? The general consensus says no. As the cost of robots comes down, smaller manufacturers and higher-wage countries like the United Kingdom and USA can afford to compete with overseas manufacturers, even creating new jobs between man and machine.

Rethink Robotics — Brooks and Baxter” by Steve Jurvetson is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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