Rodney’s factory robot revolution
We’re at a tipping point when it comes to smart factory robots, says artificial intelligence guru, inventor and entrepreneur Rodney Brooks. Brent Balinski spoke to the Australian-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 livingroom 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.
Click here for a Q and A with Rodney Brooks.