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Rodney's factory robot revolution

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We’re at a tipping point when it comes to smart factory robots, says artificial intelligence guru, inventor and entrepreneur Rodney Brooks. Brent Balinski from Manufacturer's Monthly spoke to the South Australia-born and Boston-based founder, CTO and chairman of Rethink Robotics.

An answer to labour shortages

Rodney Brooks’s robotic innovations have found their way into places as varied as the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, the radioactive ruins of Fukushima, the surface of Mars, and even onto our living room floors.

The Adelaide-born MIT Professor Emeritus is right now concerned with the world’s factories, though. He believes the need for help – in the form of factory robots – has never been greater.

“Manufacturing across the world is suffering from a lack of labour,” he said.

Brooks said he started to see the supply of work in China dry up in about 2005. He had been visiting regularly since 1997 in his previous board/founder role at iRobot and saw that outsourcing was looking less and less sustainable.

“You talk to a Chinese manufacturer and they’ll say their biggest problem is recruitment and retention for their labour,” he said of the situation today.

The country is currently scrambling to develop and buy enough robots to deal with its labour availability and price challenges. One high-profile example of the rush for robots is the iPhone contractor Foxconn.

Globally speaking, Brooks believes it’s a “knee in the curve” moment for collaborative robots, such as those made by the company he co-founded and is chairman and CTO of, Rethink Robotics.

“I think people are starting to see that it makes sense to put robots in to do the really dull, repetitive jobs that the robots can do,” he told Manufacturers’ Monthly, during a visit to Australia this week.

“And [also] have people who are much smarter than any of the robots – and much more dexterous – to do the more dexterous tasks. And that’s a way to increase productivity in a world where they just can’t get enough labour.”

The apparent explosion in demand for non-human help that is easy to program, flexible, relatively cheap and safe to work around can be seen in the race by established robotics companies to add “co-bots” to their offerings. A fresh example is the introduction of ABB’s YuMi at last week’s Hannover Messe expo.

Moving the benefits of IT from offices to factories

The adoption of adaptable robotics is also suited to small-volume, high-variability producers – a profile that matches a large chunk of Australian manufacturing.

According to Rethink, the new category of easy-to-use robot will be for factory workers what the PC was for office workers. Where the PC replaced the need to, say, create spreadsheets with ink and hands, the Baxter will replace the need, say, to pick and place widgets, allowing the worker to do something more interesting but not rendering them obsolete.

As the PC didn’t replace office workers – just enabled them to do their jobs more productively – the new generation of factory robots are pitched as a technology that will assist factory workers rather than put them out of jobs.

Baxter is the enemy of boring jobs in factories, rather than factory jobs fullstop, says Rethink.

The first industrial adopter in Australia is fourth-generation, premium South Australian confectioner Haigh’s Chocolates, scheduled to have a Baxter up and running at their Parkside factory this month.

In the early days of its deployment in research facilities and US factories, it has been used to undesirable – for reasons of tediousness or otherwise – tasks as varied as bagging bits of plastic, opening stool samples, and in third party logistics.

“These are companies that take some sort of product, unpack it, re-pack it, and move it off to the shelves, say, of a pharmacy chain where you get two bottles of pills for the price of one this week and they’re wrapped together,” said Brooks of one case study.

“All those things change from week to week and have been done largely by undocumented labour in the US, up until recently.

“As there’s been a crackdown on undocumented labour, those companies have had to look for other ways to do this and traditional automation doesn’t work, because the task changes every two or three days.”

Fast, cheap and everywhere

Brooks began his lifelong love of computers and robotics early on, building a machine that could play tic tac toe at 12 out of telephone switches and light bulbs.

He completed his Masters at Flinders University in South Australia but has been US-based since the late-1970s, finishing his PhD at Stanford in 1981 and joining the faculty at MIT in 1984.

In the mid-1980s, Brooks gained notoriety by his bottom-up approach to robotics. An idea inspired by mosquitoes, he noticed that despite very little brainpower they could still move about effectively and operate well enough in their environment.

He decided that, rather than try to build robots loaded with a top-heavy mental maps of the world which would become out-dated once their environment changed, robots could have a decentralised way of operating.

Operated through “subsumption architecture”, these robots had different, simple sets of behaviour. Arranged in a hierarchy, higher tasks depended on lower tasks being able to be carried out.

The stripped-down bug-bots reacted quickly in response to their changing environments, and despite their basic “brainpower” were able to act effectively in response to what was happening around them.

One of the best known of these robots was Genghis (pictured above), which spent a decade on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington.

The architecture used to let Genghis walk around, bump into things, react, and keep going, was used in the Roomba vacuum, the best known robot from the MIT spinoff company iRobot, which Brooks co-founded. (He left the company in 2008 to found Heartland, which later renamed as Rethink.)

The 10 millionth Roomba was sold in 2013, and they continue to be in high demand the world over, sometimes finding use carrying pets and children around as well as cleaning floors.

Though maybe not as much of a household name as the ubiquitous, autonomous vacuum cleaner he co-invented, Brooks has been featured in several documentaries, including Fast, Cheap And Out of Control (1997) and Rodney’s Robot Revolution (2008).

His subsumption architecture is also used in thousands of PackBots, iRobot’s bomb-disposal robots which have been deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, and even in the Mars Rover Sojourner, which landed on the Red Planet in 1997.

The AI concept is still relevant today, and there are echoes of Genghis in Rethink’s factory helper.

Baxter comes with a variation of the subsumption architecture built into its robot DNA.

“And that’s what lets Baxter be aware of different things in parallel, for instance it’s picked something up, it’s put it in a box, something goes wrong, and it drops the object, sadly,” explained Brooks.

“A traditional robot would just continue and sort of mime putting the thing in the box, but Baxter is aware of that, changes behaviour – that’s using the behaviour-based approach, which is a variation on subsumption. So it is part of Baxter’s intelligence.”

Rethink Robotics’ Baxter is distributed in Australia by Training Systems Australia, a division of Pullman Learning Group. www.trainingsystemsaustralia.com.au

This article first appeared on Manufacturer's Monthly.

This is a Creative Commons story from The Lead South Australia, a news service providing stories about innovation in South Australia. Please feel free to use the story in any form of media. The story sources are linked in with the copy and all contacts are willing to talk further about the story.

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