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Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto

Futuristic connotations notwithstanding, the idea of “robotic collaboration” seems like an antiquated concept. Today’s tech is designed for seamless integration into our natural environment: even the assembly line robotic arms you see manufacturing diesel engines in Detroit reflect this task-specific functionalism. Eventually, the human race realized it didn’t need a seven-foot tall anthropomorphic automaton like Robby the Robot lumbering around after us with a tray of tuna salad sandwiches and a kettle of tea.

Yet a number of low-cost, highly-adaptive manufacturing robots have debuted over the past year that resemble Robby in spirit if not strictly design. This next generation of robots includes Baxter, a very promising model from a Boston-based company called Rethink. Baxter doesn’t have legs or speech capacity, but it (or he?) does feature 360-degree sonar sensors, two Olympic swimmer-length arms, and digitally rendered eyes that stare back from a flat-screen head.

Rethink’s marketing pitch for Baxter is simple: the robot arrives pre-assembled, is ready for work out-of-the-box, and can operate safely nearly anywhere on a factory floor. Any employee can quickly train Baxter by moving its arms in simulation of the desired task. And at $22,000, Baxter is about 10 times less expensive than existing industrial robots.

As robots like Baxter get cheaper, smarter and safer, many tech gurus believe the United States is on the verge of a robotics revolution that will democratize the manufacturing industry, upend embedded production chains and bolster the U.S. economy.

Of course, putting the word “revolution” next to “robotics” will raise some flags for science fiction fans. But the first and most important of Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics was “do no harm to humans.” And in today’s economy, that means not taking jobs from domestic workers. Ever since the auto industry transitioned to mechanized assembly lines in the 1970s, workers have associated increased automation with increased unemployment.

But Rethink’s chief technical officer Rodney Brooks—a former professor of robotics at MIT—believes the next generation of robots will decrease the flow of offshore labor by making domestic factories more cost-competitive. Efficient robotic labor could dismantle the barriers to entry for start-up manufacturers, who could use their limited funds on research and development rather than assembly and packaging. (With Baxter’s current price tag, three years of eight-hour shifts would cost roughly $4 an hour.) Production and innovation could both increase.

American manufacturing is already experiencing something of a revitalization. Manufacturing employment has increased by nearly half a million in the last two years because of rising energy and labor costs in the developing world. On top of that, companies such as Dow Chemicals, Caterpillar, GE and Ford have already begun moving some of their offshore manufacturing out of China back to the U.S. because of problems stemming from production time lags. Increased use of robots like Baxter over the next decade could help make those gains permanent. The International Federation of Robotics notes that robot shipments in the United States increased by 43% in 2011.

Robotics is not the only disruptive tech development in manufacturing. California-based inventor Brook Drumm has created a 3D printer for the masses called printrbot that obviates the need for an assembly line entirely. With printrbot you can “print” 3D parts and objects from essentially a sketch. Man and machine working together.  Buyers input schematics directly into printrbot, which then uses a super-heated nozzle to deposit layers of ABS filament until it creates a solid object.  Drumm used a video of himself demonstrating a printrbot prototype to secure $830,000 in Kickstarter funding for the device, a sign of how much interest there is in such a device.

Printrbot effectively lowers the cost of entry for inventors and entrepreneurs. Ideas can be transformed into marketable products with minimal upfront costs. And advancements in technology mean that high-end 3D printers can now produce finished products, not simply prototypes.

The combination of robotics, 3D printers and other tech advances bodes well for American manufacturing—especially if workers and employers are proactive in adjusting their operating procedures. Tech hubs in particular should be able to capitalize on low cost, close proximity manufacturing through quicker turnarounds on product development and distribution.

Baxter is still a few generations removed from Robby the Robot, but it’s obvious that tomorrow’s robotics are here today. And Bill Gates believes we’re on the verge of a wave of robotic innovation similar to the personal computer revolution in the 1970s and 1980s. How we choose to integrate the technology into our workforce will determine the competitiveness of our economy for decades to come.

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