What is in this article?:
- Robots, Reshoring and the Promise of the 21st Century
- A New Robot
IW Best Plants keynote, Rodney Brooks, is designing tools to bring manufacturing up to date and back in the U.S.A.
Rodney Brooks and his newest robot, Baxter, are trying to bring low cost, high quality manufacturing back to the U.S.
In 2002, Rodney Brooks brought the first real taste of the 21st century into the world and, even better, into our homes.
When it first hit the market, the Roomba – the tiny, autonomous robot vacuum created by Brooks' first major startup, iRobot – represented the pinnacle of high-tech, ultra-modern life.
It was the first definitive sign that the sci-fi future we'd been promised for the new millennia was starting to come true.
However, there was one part of it that didn't quite live up to the promise: manufacturing.
"We were manufacturing Roombas in China at the time," he recalled in his keynote presentation at the 2014 IndustryWeek Best Plants Conference earlier this month.
"I spent a lot of time touring those factories in China all through the early part of the 2000s," he said. "And I found that they were still making a lot of stuff by hand."
Worse, he found that – even at the height of that first digital revolution – outsourced hand manufacturing seemed to dominate the industry. And it still does.
"All of the stuff we buy at Wal-Mart even today is largely made by hand," he said. "The iPad, for example, is reportedly touched by 325 different pairs of hands during assembly."
That, he said, seems like an awful lot of hand manufacturing. Way too much, in fact.
"We've been making stuff by hand in factories for 234 years now," he said. "Using our hands. I wanted to make something to break out of that."
That was only the start, though.
Twenty-first century hand manufacturing in China, he explained, is the result of 50 years of sending domestic production to far flung factories to make our gadgets, gizmos and daily necessities in the cheapest way possible. Even if that means reverting back to 18th century techniques to do it.
That, he said, has cost our country jobs, manufacturing capacity and innovative power, not to mention defying the promise of the 21st century.
"I thought, there had to be a better way," Brooks said. "And I'm robot guy, so of course the answer I came up with happened to be robots… which is pretty convenient, really."
But not just robots. Robots, he noted, have been popping up in factories since 1961 and clearly aren't impacting this trend. Brooks wasn't interested in those robots. He wanted a different robot, one that could tackle this issue directly.
Fast forward 10 years, and he has given us his solution: Baxter.