01 Dec 2017
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The Robots Are Coming to Save Your Job

Rethink Robotics doesn’t want to replace human laborers—it wants to give them the ultimate coworkers
by Dan Morrell

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Sawyer is one of two bots that Rethink Robotics has developed for the small-business market. (courtesy of Rethink Robotics)

You can tell Rethink Robotics’ products by their faces: A small, white digital screen with two expressive eyes. They have names, too: Baxter is its first-generation two-armed robot, meant for simpler jobs like unpacking boxes; Sawyer is a one-armed robot designed for more precise tasks like placing memory cards into motherboards.

The humanizing is intentional and essential to integrating the bots into a factory’s workflow. “It’s not the XY2000 machine, it’s your coworker that you’re comfortable working next to and interacting with,” says Scott Eckert (MBA 1995), CEO of the nine-year-old, 130-person, Boston-based bot maker. It’s a tenet so core to the company that its logo features an icon of a human next to an icon of a robot.

Sawyer and Baxter make for good coworkers, Eckert says. Created for small businesses rather than the automotive industry—which makes up 70 percent of the US industrial robot market—Rethink’s bots do the boring, monotonous stuff. Humans get more interesting jobs: the precise cuts, the polishing, the hands-on testing tasks a robot just can’t handle. And like a good colleague, the robots are easy to teach, Eckert adds. Directing Rethink’s robots is as much about coaching as it is coding: Coworkers take a robot’s wrist, click down to engage, and then manually move the arm through the desired function to “train” it. Cameras and force-sensing technology—which allows a bot to “feel” its way through tasks (and around objects)—ensure that the robots operate with both safety and accuracy.

But the robots also possess that most important coworker trait: They’re not trying to steal your job. “The reality is that there’s a labor shortage in manufacturing,” says Eckert. A 2015 report by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute found that 2 million of the nearly 3.5 million anticipated open manufacturing jobs in the United States in the next decade will go unfilled. Europe has a similar problem, with consulting firm Prognos AG estimating that Germany could see a shortage of 3 million skilled workers by 2030; China, which accounts for about 20 percent of the world’s manufacturing production, will have a high-skilled labor gap of about 24 million by 2020, according to McKinsey. “You want to hang on to the labor you have, develop their skills, and move them up the skill and pay ladders,” says Eckert, with robots replacing only the bottom rungs. “You’re not finding 21-year-olds coming out of school and wanting to go into manufacturing. In China, there is actually a declining population of 21-year-olds, and so the problem is becoming even more acute over time.”

Beyond answering short-term labor needs, Eckert thinks these kinds of co-bots also have the potential to upend traditional factory economics. “For a generation now, you had to go to a low labor cost region and build a large-scale factory to be able to manufacture in an economically viable manner,” he says. “Today, though, I can actually build a smaller factory in the United States; have robots take some of the cost out, with high-skilled labor doing other parts of the work; and have a successful factory that is much smaller than what I would have had to build in China, for example— and take advantage of it being closer to the customer.”

It’s part of Eckert’s larger vision for the factory of the future that not only has a proximity advantage, but also is much nimbler—no longer a string of one-job bots tightening the same widgets a thousand times a day. Instead, he says, it will be able to react to shifting customer needs, with lines of wheeled Baxters and Sawyers reconfigured on the fly, based on data from both the production process and market performance.

This “agile factory,” he says, is a far cry from the monolithic, high-volume factories of a generation ago—and a system he hopes will ensure those happy faces spread from the factory floor to the market and the boardroom.

From Baker Library:

A recent New York Times article examines how companies have begun incorporating collaborative robots into the work force. Still think the robots are going to take your job? Current research by economist James Besson suggests that despite being associated with job losses, automation in fact often boosts employment in affected industries.

 
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Class of MBA 1995, Section E

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