Five months ago, a pair of boxes bearing the return address of Universal Robots in Odense, Denmark, showed up on the receiving dock of custom faucet maker RSS Manufacturing & Phylrich. 

In those boxes were the pieces and parts of a sleek, gray robotic arm, articulated with six rotating joints and capped with an array of grippers and attachments capable of mimicking the motion and skill of just about any of the 72 trained workers in the Costa Mesa, Calif., factory. Also included was a short video that explained how the UR5 robot would begin doing just that within the hour. 

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Somewhere in the mix of hardware and cabling in those boxes, between controllers and packing peanuts, was tucked a little glimpse of the future -- the future of both the company and of American manufacturing. 

The crew at RSS regarded that future with a mix of emotions. There was trepidation from hourly workers like Jessie Toller, whose job feeding CNC machines would be taken over by this robot in the next few days. And on the other end, automation specialists like Shane Strange stood by happy and eager to take on all of the new work it would bring his way.

To CEO Geoff Escalette, though, the delivery meant only one thing: hope. 

"This robot is our key to competing on a global scale," he says. "To go against Asia, we need larger capacity, we need to be more profitable and put more into new products and growth. And this is how we will do it."

Rise of the Robots

Just a couple of years ago, Escalette wouldn't have had the opportunity to make this kind of bet on his company's future. 

The industrial robots that have meant so much to the automotive manufacturing industry -- those great yellow Fanucs and their like that toss engine blocks like toys between assembly lines or spot-weld components with super-human speed and precision -- have always been out of reach for small and midsize manufacturers. From the unit costs to the programming requirements to the floor space they require, big-time robots have only ever found a place in big-time factories.

But those are the robots of a different age. 

In small factories and medium-sized enterprises across the country, a new generation of robots is zipping around assembly lines delivering parts, running operations, communicating and collaborating with workers, and giving a helping hand at every phase of the manufacturing process, from assembly and warehousing to packaging and shipping, and for every level of business, from multinational corporations to one-man shops. 

Enabled by new advances in sensor technologies and the proliferation of object detection, 3-D imaging and human interface software, robots have officially emerged from behind the light curtains and into the spotlight of American small business.  

Shining brightest in that spotlight is a little guy named Baxter.