How will Baxter change manufacturing?

I initially heard about Baxter during my commute last Monday, as technology expert Jesse Hirsh did his weekly piece on CBC Radio One’s Metro Morning. I listened attentively as he outlined its capabilities, and how a new generation of adaptive robots might affect the manufacturing industry. After looking it up at the office, the adaptability, flexibility, and accessibility of the robot definitely had me thinking about what it means for manufacturing.

Contrary to conventional industrial robotics, Baxter does not require specialized programmers to introduce simple processes, has the ability to change its movement based on its external environment, and costs a fraction of what larger-scale robots do. Instead of costly re-tooling or reprogramming, users can stop Baxter, wheel it to the next station, and physically move its appendages to teach it a new task. Sensors and cameras allow the robot to “understand” tasks shown to it, allowing a company to “train” the robot the same way it may train a new human employee. The developers of the robot suggest that it can be quickly and easily integrated into existing manufacturing processes, and work side by side with – rather than segregated from- human coworkers.

Opinions about what this means for manufacturing seem divided.Technology Review suggests arguments on either side: a loss of un-skilled or semi-skilled jobs as more adaptive robots like Baxter are developed; or longer-term improvement in employment and small business development prospects.

I suppose I have a little trouble picturing how an adaptive robot like Baxter could drive employment in North American manufacturing. Baxter seems to have capabilities that would allow it to replace human employees, much like its more conventional predecessors have done. This is hardly a trend that Baxter has introduced, but I’m not sure it will slow it down or reverse it either. Even if more adaptive robots force the “reshoring” of lost production, the same level of employment (both absolute numbers and wages) is unlikely to follow recovered manufacturing activity.

What seems more likely to me is the benefit that more accessible robotics might have for small businesses and entrepreneurs. At $22,000, I can picture Baxter being a more palatable choice than larger-scale robotics and automation in the early stages of development. Further, Baxter augments larger-scale processes once introduced. But more adaptive robotics may also allow small businesses the flexibility to scale production up or down and change product lines/processes to match changing customer demands quickly. The last several years have shown us that manufacturers that have the ability to do this can fare well in the restructured economy.

We often talk about the need to support technology integration in our small businesses – especially in industrial sectors. It seems to me that more ubiquitous use of adaptive technologies like Baxter may provide the tools that allow our existing and future manufacturers to do just that. Maintaining an employment base though, and providing these new employers with the skills they need, may have just gotten a little more difficult.