Baxter the robot shows manufacturing skill in Pittsburgh


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Work wanted: willing to do light parts-handling for $4 an hour for 40 hours or more weekly. Overtime wages not required. Health care, 401(k) plan, vacation, sick leave and other benefits need not be provided.

If you're thinking the job candidate is a member of the oppressed working class in China or a Third World country, think again.

It's Baxter, an American-made robot launched last week and on display at a robotics industry conference hosted in Pittsburgh this week.

Baxter is made by Rethink Robotics, a Boston company founded by Rodney Brooks, the former head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's computer science and artificial intelligence lab. Fully equipped at about $22,000, Baxter's target market is small and medium-sized manufacturers who have never been able to afford robots before, said Scott Eckert, the company's president and CEO.

"With our low price point, this is meant to be a high-volume opportunity," Mr. Eckert said. "It will democratize the notion of robots."

He predicts Baxter will make more U.S. manufacturers more competitive by allowing them to shift simple, repetitive tasks from humans to robots. That will eliminate the need for U.S. companies to send low-wage jobs overseas and make those with factories overseas think about moving production back to the United States, Mr. Eckert said.

That's "what keeps jobs in the United States," he said.

While Baxter will replace real workers, those employees can do higher-skilled work or oversee a team of two or three Baxters, he said. Jobs also will be created at companies that supply rejuvenated manufacturers, he added.

Baxter's $4-an-hour wages are based on the cost of the machine and the 6,200-hour warranty that the human-sized robot comes with, he said. While China currently pays workers $2 or $3 an hour to do the kind of work Baxter is capable of, wages in China "will be $4 an hour in a year or two," Mr. Eckert said.

The robot is designed to move parts and products weighing up to five pounds onto or off of production lines. It can also move similarly sized pieces to and from boxes.

The robot takes about an hour to get out of the box, assemble and program, Mr. Eckert said. That includes the 10 to 15 minutes it takes for someone with a high school education to show Baxter the job it is expected to do.

Baxter's job Tuesday at the RoboBusiness Leadership Summit at the Marriott Pittsburgh City Center was to move small pieces of Halloween candy a foot or so on a table in the hotel's exhibit hall.

The robot is also cognizant of coworkers, and can work alongside humans without physically threatening them. When Mr. Eckert stuck his head in the path of Baxter's arm, the robot halted after hitting him and waited for an all-clear signal.

When he moved a Kit Kat candy bar that Baxter was programmed to think would be there, the robot kept trying to pick it up until Mr. Eckert put it back where it belonged.

More than 400 people attended the three-day conference, which is sponsored by Association Event Ventures, a Framingham, Mass., company that publishes newsletters and sponsors conferences for robotics, electronic security and other industries.

AE Ventures President John Galante said the conference helps robotics companies capitalize on opportunities outside of heavy manufacturing and the defense industry, which are the biggest users of robots.

First held in 2004, the conference has alternated between Boston, where a robotics industry has developed around MIT, and Pittsburgh, where Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute makes the city "one of the epicenters of robotics in the country," Mr. Galante said.

The conference agenda included visits to the Robotics Institute and to Giant Eagle's distribution center in Crafton, where attendees saw robotic forklifts move goods around the warehouse. The vehicles are made by Seegrid, a Findlay company that hosted a meeting of President Barack Obama's Jobs Council last October.

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Len Boselovic: lboselovic@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1941. First Published October 24, 2012 4:00 AM


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