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A robot for small, midsize manufacturers

Anthony Jules, right, gets a demonstration of Rethink

Anthony Jules, right, gets a demonstration of Rethink Robotics' Baxter user programmable robot from product manager Mike Bugda. ( Oct. 25, 2012) Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette / Bob Donaldson

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 recently, and 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 is targeted for small and medium-sized manufacturers who have never been able to afford robots before, said Scott Eckert, company president and chief executive.

"With our low price point, this is meant to be a high-volume opportunity," 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, 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 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," Eckert said.

The robot is designed to move parts and products weighing up to 5 pounds onto or off production lines. It can also move similarly sized pieces to and from boxes.

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

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

Baxter was unveiled at a conference 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 goal is to help 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," Galante said.


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