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Software Upgrades Make This Assembly Robot Ever-More Powerful

The ability of the Baxter robot to work alongside humans is steadily getting better, thanks to continuous software refinements.

Brian Buntz

In a way, a two-armed robot called Baxter is similar to a smartphone. The capabilities of the robot can be expanded through software updates. "We have developers coming up with software that enables Baxter to do things we never dreamed of," says Carl Palme, product manager at Rethink Robotics (Boston), which developed Baxter.

The company recently debuted its Intera 3.1 software update, which includes what the company calls a "Robot Positioning System" to facilitate relocating a robot after it has been moved from one work space to another. "This serves two purposes," Palme says. "First, when deploying the robot on multiple applications, a user can have the robot up-and-running on a previously trained task in less than minutes. Second, because the robot works next to humans, they sometimes bump into fixtures and tables, which breaks tasks. With this feature, you can reregister very quickly."

The Robot Positioning System is also designed to help facilitate collaboration between robots and nearby human workers. In the past, when human operators near the robot accidentally bumped into tables, conveyors, or the robot itself, it would make Baxter unable to perform its programmed tasks. The new feature enables operators to redeploy the robot after such an occurrence without the need to retrain or recallibrate the robot. The robot can do this by using a landmark, which it uses as a point of reference. Such landmarks are made of anodized aluminum with an adhesive backing. A series of such landmarks are placed throughout the workspace to help Baxter stay oriented.

Software updates are making Baxter become increasingly adept in performing assembly operations, as well. Last year, the company  upgraded Baxter with its third revision software update, which made the robot three times faster and two times as precise, according to Palme. "We also have done little things like create little macros to make Baxter easier for people to train." Unlike conventional manufacturing robots that require a specialist to program, Baxter can be programmed to perform tasks in a matter of minutes.

The ability to upgrade Baxter's functionality via software updates makes the company nimble, similar to tech companies like Apple and Google that fine tune features based on user feedback. "We get lots of feedback from the field and work with software to relieve the pain points," Palme says.

The multiuse robot is already in use by several medical device companies, Palme says. The robot can be quickly trained to perform simple assembly operations. And Baxter's ability to precisely count and package parts, for example, is another example where the robot excels. "You can train Baxter in a few minutes to package devices, freeing up people from having to do that. You can specify how many pieces go into a box based on a count," he says. When humans perform such operations, they tend to be less accurate as their attention levels dwindle. But Baxter's accuracy is consistent.

Baxter also can be used for more complicated applications like verifying if a circuit board passed or failed a given manufacturing step. From there, Baxter can then sort the passed and failed parts into different lots.

Baxter's functionality also will increase as its manufacturer finds new ways to tap into the hardware already present in the robot. "We have cameras in Baxter's wrist. If you keep an eye out, we'll be releasing functionality for that soon," Palme says.

A recent  video from Rethink Robotics discusses how the Baxter's new software update is being used by Praxis Packaging Solutions (Grand Rapids, MI) for contract packaging applications.

The robot also can be used for medical-related applications. For instance, researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute (Troy, NY) have integrated the 165-lb. robot in an electric wheelchair to create an assistive system that could be used by quadriplegics. Using a mouth-based device known as Jamboxx, a quadriplegic could control Baxter without using their hands to perform tasks traditionally performed by caregivers.

Though Baxter's capabilities are steadily increasing, Rethink Robotics don't see the robot as a threat to manufacturing employee's job security. The robot, because it is so adept at collaborating with human workers, can be used to help human workers become more effective. "You liberate the skills of your employees while the robot does boring monotonous tasks," Palme says.

One example where this has proven to be true comes from a company named Vanguard Plastics (Southington, CT), an injection molding company. After the company acquired a Baxter robot, the company assigned it the task of removing medicine cups from a conveyor belt and feeding them to a bagger. After installing the robot, the company's shipping manager, Mildred Martinez, was promoted. The robot also is helping the company better compete against competitors in low-cost destinations offshore.  

For many companies--in the medical device sector and elsewhere--the benefits of offshoring are beginning to erode. "We are going to run out of countries that are low cost," Palme says.

Refresh your medical device industry knowledge at BIOMEDevice Boston, May 6-7, 2015.

Brian Buntz is the editor-in-chief of MPMN and Qmed. Follow him on Twitter at @brian_buntz.

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