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Businesses Robotics Technology

A Humanoid Robot Named "Baxter" Could Revive US Manufacturing 414

Posted by samzenpus
from the no-lunch-breaks dept.
fangmcgee writes "Rethink Robotics invented a $22,000 humanoid robot named "Baxter" that could give cheap offshore labor a run for its money and return manufacturing jobs to U.S. soil. Artificial intelligence expert Rodney Brooks is the brain behind Baxter. From the article: 'Brooks’s company, Rethink Robotics, says the robot will spark a “renaissance” in American manufacturing by helping small companies compete against low-wage offshore labor. Baxter will do that by accelerating a trend of factory efficiency that’s eliminated more jobs in the U.S. than overseas competition has. Of the approximately 5.8 million manufacturing jobs the U.S. lost between 2000 and 2010, according to McKinsey Global Institute, two-thirds were lost because of higher productivity and only 20 percent moved to places like China, Mexico, or Thailand.'"
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A Humanoid Robot Named "Baxter" Could Revive US Manufacturing

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  • by rueger (210566) * on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @10:01PM (#42612683) Homepage
    " a $22,000 humanoid robot named "Baxter" that could give cheap offshore labor a run for its money and return manufacturing jobs to U.S. soil.

    Uh... seems like someone is unclear on the definition of "job."
    • by DavidClarkeHR (2769805) <david@clarke.hrgeneralist@ca> on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @10:28PM (#42612893)

      " a $22,000 humanoid robot named "Baxter" that could give cheap offshore labor a run for its money and return manufacturing jobs to U.S. soil. Uh... seems like someone is unclear on the definition of "job."

      Well, not really. It would shift production back to north america, and that would require technicians to install and maintain the robots.

      At least, until we replace THEM with robots too.

      • by MBCook (132727)

        People are mad because (say) 500,000 manufacturing jobs were replaced with workers overseas. If 1,000 jobs are created here to manage those robots, that still leaves 499,000 people mad because their job doesn't exist any more.

        And the truth is that there is a large difference between people making portable DVD players and people running the robots to make the portable DVD players. It's quite possible that very few of those 1,000 "saved" jobs would even be people in that original pool.

      • by arth1 (260657)

        Well, not really. It would shift production back to north america, and that would require technicians to install and maintain the robots.

        Installation can be done by a consultant, and is a one-time cost.
        For maintenance, at $22,000, it would be cheaper to replace three of them per year than keeping a technician employed. All you need is someone who after his other tasks can spend ten minutes on loading in the program as per the instructions left by the consultant.

        • by DavidClarkeHR (2769805) <david@clarke.hrgeneralist@ca> on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @11:59PM (#42613491)

          Well, not really. It would shift production back to north america, and that would require technicians to install and maintain the robots.

          Installation can be done by a consultant, and is a one-time cost. For maintenance, at $22,000, it would be cheaper to replace three of them per year than keeping a technician employed. All you need is someone who after his other tasks can spend ten minutes on loading in the program as per the instructions left by the consultant.

          Until the robots are self-servicing, self-selling and self-assembling, there will be work. Once they've mastered two of those three, I think we will have larger issues.

          In anticipation of that time, it should clearly be stated that I, for one, will welcome our cold, unfeeling, american-made robot masters. Unless these get copied by the chinese as well, and then? ... well, I don't speak binary or mandarin.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @11:49PM (#42613435)

        This should be modded up! I work for an embedded electronics manufacturer, although not in the USA or China. Things like pick and place machines and automated testing has enabled us to produce a much higher volume with less employees.

        The choice is either not to do it, then become overpriced, lose contracts and then everybody loses their jobs, or automate, then the shittier jobs disappear (repetitive manual labor) but *loads* of more qualified jobs are created!

        Sure, we have less people soldering and manually testing stuff. But with the higher volume of sales we now have lots more technicians to do debugging and service, way more programmers, people designing, maintaining and programming test equipment, more sales folks, a bigger IT staff, more managers and various other "desk jobs", etc. We also buy lots of stuff from local suppliers (including many custom made parts) which create a whole lot of jobs locally, we keep the local delivery drivers busy, etc. And we train a lot of people. They get a lot of very meaningful design and manufacturing experience.

        There's a whole lot of good that comes from keeping *some* jobs locally vs outsourcing everything to a country with sweatshop like conditions.

    • ding - 10 points. If all the manufacturing jobs left China and came back to the USA and were done by Robots - there would still be NO MANUFACTURING JOBS IN THE USA. If they are sophisticated enough to do manufacturing, then they are sophisticated enough to do basic grunt service jobs - a big chunk of MAcDonalds would disappear. Then what? We can't all be "entrepreneurs". We can't all be "Successful businessmen". So, you end up with an ever larger pool of poorly or mis-skilled labour who can't buy anything t
      • by fyngyrz (762201) on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @11:18PM (#42613235) Homepage Journal

        What you're missing here is that there is more than one way to have an economy, and that the idea that "everyone needs to work" isn't a fixed datum in an unchanging world.

        At some point, (non-ai) robotics will assume the load of manufacturing and menial work, and from there they will percolate upwards. This may be the beginning of that trend (ignoring heavy manufacturing robotics, which are already in place and entrenched.)

        You need food, shelter, and healthcare. You do not have to provide that for yourself in order to have a healthy economy.

        Change is inevitable in this domain.

      • How is this different from the argument that we should use spoons rather than shovels to dig ditches, because that requires more workers and hence creates jobs?

      • ...there would still be NO MANUFACTURING JOBS IN THE USA.

        Do you realize that almost $2 TRILLION of goods were manufactured in the US, last year?
        Do you think that was all done by robots?

    • I was thinking the same thing. Won't be too long before Baxter is saying "You want Fries with that?"

      In fact, I'm kind of surprised it hasn't happened already- it should be drop dead simple to automate a fast food restaurant.

  • by viperidaenz (2515578) on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @10:04PM (#42612703)

    Of the approximately 5.8 million manufacturing jobs the U.S. lost between 2000 and 2010, according to McKinsey Global Institute, two-thirds were lost because of higher productivity and only 20 percent moved to places like China, Mexico, or Thailand.'"

    So they're going to bring jobs back by increasing productivity? The cause of 2/3rd's of the job losses?

    • by ExecutorElassus (1202245) on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @10:11PM (#42612767)
      They're going to increase the profitability of manufacturing in the US by eliminating most of the costs of labor, thereby allowing more of the means of production to remain under the control -- and work to the benefit -- of capital.

      I really can't imagine a move like this being unpopular and/or economically suicidal in any way whatsoever. Nope.
      • For those few jobs that require human intervention but NOT fine motor control / complex or difficult hand / body movements.

        Basically, warehouse work - which is done by meat Popsicles at present (who get one of those mysterious 'job' things). Now it will be done by robots.

        Nice work, bozo!

  • by rabtech (223758) on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @10:09PM (#42612763) Homepage

    This is the long term future for a lot of manual labor across the board. What that will mean for the future of human society is anyone's guess. Perhaps we'll all work 10 hour weeks. Or maybe most will be surfs, crushed under the boots of the aristocracy (robot owners).

    How a consumer-driven economy can survive these changes is another huge question mark.

    • Well, currently I'm a doctor. So I work on people-thingies. If they go away (or can't afford medical care, this still is going to be America), maybe I'll have to turn into a robot mechanic.

      Hmm. Made of exactly the same parts. No annoying chemical brain to confuse things. An off switch.

      Hmm. Progress!

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by anubi (640541)

        Well, currently I'm a doctor. So I work on people-thingies.

        Thought of using these things as healthcare assistants and live-in care for invalids? If they had strong arms, they would be able to help invalids into beds, wheelchairs, assist with bathing, food prep, and cleanups - especially the messy kind people hate to get their hands in. They could also radio in for help when the situation warrants it.

        God knows how many live-alone elderly could use one of these as a help-mate.

    • Perhaps we'll all work 10 hour weeks. Or maybe most will be surfs, crushed under the boots of the aristocracy (robot owners).

      Or maybe most of us will be the robot owners, either directly or as shareholders in the corporations that own the robots.

      To make that work, however, we'll need to reverse this alarming trend of increasingly penalizing those whose parents left them more in the way of capital than the capacity for manual labor. Otherwise, each generation has to start over from scratch with increasingly worthless "seed capital".

      • I've got a Roomba. Does that count?

        • I've got a Roomba. Does that count?

          Yes it does. It does work that would otherwise be done by a human, and frees up your time for other things.

          I have a 3D printer, CNC mill, and CNC lathe in my garage. All of them cost under $1000 each. Now I just need an autoloader to place and retrieve parts, and I can run them 24/7.

          The idea that only "the rich" will be able to own robots is as silly as believing (as people once did) that only the rich will have computers. Robots are currently expensive because of NRE. Once they are mass produced on th

          • by arth1 (260657)

            The idea that only "the rich" will be able to own robots is as silly as believing (as people once did) that only the rich will have computers. Robots are currently expensive because of NRE. Once they are mass produced on the scale that automobiles are currently made, they should cost no more than $10k each, and likely even less. Anyone that can afford a car will be able to afford a robot.

            The problem is that when everyone can afford robots, the value of their work plummets too, making he investment a loss.
            CPU cycles used to cost a lot of money, but even though you have several fast computers now, you can't make any money on CPU cycles. They're near worthless because the supply exceeds the demand. You need to put in more work to make money now - what the computers were supposed to save you from.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by zigziggityzoo (915650)
      The original luddites were afraid of this very thing - advances in loom technology turned weaving jobs from highly skilled labor into a job someone could learn in a few hours.

      This sort of thing will happen over and over again. And as progress marches onward, most of us still manage to find work.
    • by dcollins (135727)

      Current trend: No way we'll be working 10 hour weeks, that's just a perennial geek fantasy. Power and wealth are nowadays accruing to the top 1% (IP owners). Reduced work weeks only ever came from active union organizing a century ago, and most unions have been crushed in the last few decades.

      • by Darkness404 (1287218) on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @11:12PM (#42613201)
        Except that when you really look at the long term, the west has been working less and less for basic needs.

        Naturally with meaningless, fiat currencies and increased government intervention in the economy, true wealth for most has dropped recently. But let's go farther back to see the general trend.

        Today the average worker works for about 8 hours. Now depending on the job field that can be really working for 8 hours or it can be working for a couple hours while being "on duty" for 8 hours. Back 150 years ago, you literally worked from sunup to sundown, something that few workers do anymore, excepting those employed in agriculture which is down to about 3% or so of people in the US.

        For example, working in as a "tech guy" at a fairly small business, I'm there for 8 hours on weekdays but probably only do 3-4 hours of actual work while the rest is just downtime (waiting for a patch to download, etc.). Now, if there is a problem I work much longer hours (until the problem is fixed) but I'd say I've got about a 20 hour workweek already. There's no reason to think that its going to get much longer anytime soon, unless we add a new computer system and even then it will only be temporary, or unless we expand REALLY quickly. Sure, I'm on call for 40 hours a week, but do I really work those 40 hours if all goes well? Nope.
        • by mattack2 (1165421)

          but do I really work those 40 hours if all goes well? Nope.

          Well, you're here reading Slashdot...

    • I just read Kurt Vonnegut's first novel, Player Piano [wikipedia.org].which happens to deal with this issue. I found it quite enjoyable.

  • Silly (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    The total cost of hiring a 30 cent a day worker is 30 cents day. The maintenance on one of these robots would be more than that. Plus if robots could compete with 30 cent a day workers, then China would be using more robots.

    The companies that compete against the Chinese and win, do it like the Germans do, they use dedicated production automated lines designed to make the article, NOT general purpose robots, DEDICATED kit. Making perfect identical quality components again and again and again. People will pay

    • 30 cents is 1.8 RMB, it won't even buy you breakfast in China. China can certainly use more robots, then it will be just in the same place as the US, no more cheap labor advantage.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by ShanghaiBill (739463) *

      The total cost of hiring a 30 cent a day worker is 30 cents day.

      Plus the cost of management, lighting, heating, A/C, restrooms, cafeterias, downtime for breaks and shift changes, and dealing with the defects caused by human workers.

      then China would be using more robots.

      China is using more robots [businessweek.com].

  • by smchris (464899) on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @10:21PM (#42612839)

    If nobody has jobs anymore we better transition to an economy where everything the robots produce is free.

    • by ikaruga (2725453)
      Can the Chinese children earning just enough to eat buy the products they produce?
      Using robots is not about creating jobs in the US or any other country. Its about stopping outsourcing. Stopping technology theft and secret leaks, stopping the financing of potential rivals and even enemies, and by producing locally, increasing distribution speed.
      And while automatization may not create as many jobs as outsourcing took, it will create more than we have right now: thousands of technicians, programmers and en
    • by c0lo (1497653)

      If nobody has jobs anymore we better transition to an economy where everything the robots produce is free.

      If nobody can pay for what the robots produce, the robots will produce only soylent green.

  • Places like Germany (west), Japan, Italy, South Korea bet the farm in the 1970, 80, 90, on emerging computer skills and basic factory robotics.
    What could they see that the US did not at that time?
    They could have invited a lot of cheap guest workers in or put production lines in low cost parts of the EU, the world...
    You end up with China today, huge production lines of people putting ever smaller parts together at a faster pace with wage demands.
    The EU/parts of Asia kept pace with tech in the main areas
    • I don't see a single equation or number...
    • GM bet the farm on robotics famously in the early 1980s, as did many American firms, but the technology was simply not there. there's a great story about how GM spent 1 million bucks to get a robot to stick stickers aligned right on the dash for speedometers, but Toyota spent like 500 bucks coming up with a guide and had a person do it. It's not that the USA didn't do robots, in some ways, it did them too soon, spent too much on them, and failed.

      In any case, saying that robots will bring "jobs" back is ki

      • by timeOday (582209)

        there's a great story about how GM spent 1 million bucks to get a robot to stick stickers aligned right on the dash for speedometers, but Toyota spent like 500 bucks coming up with a guide and had a person do it.

        And I guess the person operating that jig worked for free without a paycheck, healthcare or a pension?

        GM was bankrupt down by pay and benefits, not robot purchases.

  • ... which is the unstated assumption (get jobs) whenever anyone bemoans the loss of manufacturing.

  • That thing is retarded. Every manufacturing company in the world has a "Lab" where engineers build automation to replace humans wherever possible to increase efficiency and reduce costs. Any tool that is built to do everything, does nothing well. That's what this is. Automation has been in every production plant since the Model T. The simple fact of the matter is humans are cheap. They learn quick and adapt to change fast. Humans are used in areas where you may only have a short run of something, or you nee

  • by Orne (144925) on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @11:01PM (#42613125) Homepage

    At $22k for a 3 year life, assuming 24x7, it labors for $0.84/hour with no outages. The other video had $3/hour. Add that you can save on transportation costs, customs, etc and its a no brainier that manufacturing will become "local".

    As far as job creation, i can only see it create technician jobs to repair the machines. What this will not do is create the manufacturing jobs themselves. The age of low skill labor is over, those jobs are lost. That segment of the US population (poor, undereducated, entry level) will continue to be unemployed. It will also create Chinese unemployment.

  • There is a simple solution to prevent the mass unemployment of human workers in the future as more advanced and capable robot workers fill factories and other jobs: pay them a fair wage. Right now, robots are desirable for corporations because they are considered property/assets rather than wage earning workers. Therefore, by utilizing them, and firing human workers, a corporation can greatly reduce costs. Of course this would likely lead to a world of high unemployment where most people could not affo
    • Eventually, we might not have to.

      Indeed the fundamental problem in the world is scarcity. We don't have unlimited resources. Some resources are nearly infinite (solar/wind energy) while others are quite scarce (gold). If you can eliminate any scarcity of manual labor, you can then better extract resources from the earth (and beyond!) to where there is virtually no scarcity of resources. When there's no scarcity of labor and no scarcity of resources, the only "job" left to do is one of the tinkerer or in
  • by morgauxo (974071) on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @11:34PM (#42613345)

    Who cares what country things are produced in if nobody is hired to do the production?

  • Perhaps we could purchase one of these robots and have it make money for us?
  • by Animats (122034) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @12:26AM (#42613621) Homepage

    "Baxter" looks like a clone of the Yaskawa Motoman SDA two-armed robot. [motoman.com] Brooks quotes a cheaper price, though; the SDA dual-arm is about $63K. Mechanically there's nothing new here.

    Brooks claims better safety systems and easier programming, so that the thing doesn't have to be run behind safety fences. That's the claimed innovation. It's about time for that. Industrial robots have been expensive semi-custom products for decades, and there's no good reason for that. Today, it's cheaper to include a vision system and good force feedback than to support both smart and dumb versions. iRobot's experience with the Roomba has taught them how to deploy and service standard robots in quantity. So they have a good chance of bringing this off.

    • by superflex (318432)

      Industrial robots have been expensive semi-custom products for decades, and there's no good reason for that.

      This product isn't going to replace the expensive semi-custom robot systems; that is not their target market. This is enabling automation in lower-speed, lower-volume, low-complexity tasks. Look at the specs listed at the bottom of this page [rethinkrobotics.com] on the Rethink Robotics website.
      - 8-12 pick & place operations/minute (total incl. both arms)
      - 5 lb. payload per arm
      - 1 m/sec arm speed

      So they won't be competing with the following "expensive semi-custom products":
      - high-speed pick and place (i.e. PCB surface m

  • by Maxo-Texas (864189) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @12:46AM (#42613739)

    I love the way the article talks about these robots in the hands of the "factory workers" when it means the "factory owners".

    Sounds like a stiff property tax on robots is in order to me, if for nothing else except to prevent civil unrest.

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