He is conscious of his environment, and takes utmost care not to hurt his fellow workers. He is adaptable, amiable and a lighting-fast learner. Best of all, he works tirelessly across multiple shifts – all day if necessary – without breaks, without food and without complaint.
Baxter, of course, is the latest in a new kind of industrial robot that has been popping up on small and midsize manufacturing lines across Europe these last couple of years and, more recently, trickling into the U.S. scene.
Called "cage-free" or "industrial partner" or even "inherently safe" robots, these new tools are fundamentally altering our notions of what industrial robots are and what they can do.
From their easy programming and expanded flexibility to their comparably low-cost and decreased footprint, Mitch Rosenberg, vice president of marketing and product management at Rethink Robotics – Baxter's Boston-based manufacturer – has an endless list of features that have made these robots so notable in the industry of late.
But the key feature holding them all together and driving this emerging market, he said, is safety.
"We are seeing increased interest in robots that can work safely alongside humans without safety barriers," Rosenberg explained. The appeal, of course, is that "robots working shoulder to shoulder with people don't require manufacturers to completely rework their workspaces or manufacturing processes."
Unlike traditional caged robots, he said, these robots simply can be added to the existing manufacturing line with very little process redesign. This increases the overall flexibility of the robot while reducing risks as compared to accommodating traditional robotic tools.
Add to that the low investment costs they carry and that "inherently safe" label Rosenberg uses to describe them and these new machines seem destined for a record-fast market takeover.
However, very few companies – most notably Rethink Robots and Universal Robots – have ventured into this ripe field. The rest in the industry are stymied by that same prickly issue that makes the technology so attractive for U.S. users: safety.