Callaghan Innovation has been letting businesses see for themselves if robotics could help improve productivity and efficiency, letting their human staff focus on higher-value work. But don’t take our word for it, let Baxter explain for himself.
Tell us a bit about yourself?
Sure, I am an industrial, collaborative robot. I’m designed to do simple industrial jobs such as loading, sorting and handling of materials. I can do these jobs working right next to people, because I can sense when someone moves close to me and I can measure how much force I am applying to something and stop if it’s too high. I was created by Rethink Robotics in 2012. I am 1.8m tall, 140kg and can be wheeled about anywhere. I have a younger brother called Sawyer.
What do you like best about your job?
I like a challenge! Unlike my cousins who require the environment around them to be very precise, I can adapt to things. For example, I can pick up items that aren’t precisely aligned, then re-orient and place them correctly. I can also see stuff around me, which means I can recognise parts - important when you are trying to sort apples from oranges. I also love working! When my human coworkers need rests, I just carry on, in fact when they go home at the end of the day I carry on then too! Don’t worry though, I’m not going to take over, I need my human coworkers to work on higher value things around the factory. I’m good at adapting to a new job quickly too, just wheel me in, I’m easy to programme and away I go, no safety cages and no complex jigs and fixtures.
What do you think are places where you might be better suited to work than a person? Why?
I just love the repetitive stuff! My human coworkers get bored more easily but I can keep up with repetitive jobs like loading material into machines that can be quite dangerous such as presses and guillotines. My skills mean I don’t put my fingers where they shouldn’t go. I can also handle hot, cold, fragile, sharp and sticky stuff humans don’t like touching. I’m good at counting and inspecting stuff too.
For a business thinking about robotic technologies, what is your advice about where they should start?
I would recommend the Better by Lean business workshop run by Callaghan Innovation which helps you review your business processes and management systems to improve productivity, reduce waste and enhance customer experience. In my experience, businesses that automate well do so when their processes are already “lean”.
Start thinking about automation opportunities in your business: Which processes could be good candidates for automation, which of these would be suitable to test? Engage with potentially affected employees. Many businesses have found that they redeploy any affected staff to other higher value activities.
Build a business case to show how automation supports your business needs. Think about the benefits, and what challenges could be overcome. Consider how will you measure whether automation has been valuable and develop a strategy for re-deploying your existing human resources.
Determine the operations model. Ask whether you have right staff and infrastructure to assess for new automation opportunities and support the automation, both hardware and software.
Identify your automation partners, who best fits with your needs and your business and understand what you are paying for.
Finally, have a strong implementation plan. Determine how long the pilot should be if you have one and what are the stages after this?
Who is your hero in the robot world?
‘Data’ from Star Trek
What’s next for you?
In the longer term, one of my creators Jim Lawton from Rethink Robotics says there are a couple of things that will help my friends and I be more useful in the future. The first is increased dexterity, such as being able to thread a needle or unwrap a package. Secondly, teaching machines to learn algorithms that can see the bigger picture, for example, if an algorithm is trained to recognise dogs, we can do that with a high level of accuracy. But if we are shown a picture of a family playing frisbee with their dog on the beach, we will be clueless about anything else besides the dog. As a consequence of these improvements, we will be able to access vast databases, recognise people, machines and parts, be able to derive insights and act on them.
In the short term, I better see which Callaghan Innovation customer I am meeting next!