Businesses adopting robots for new tasks

But will the machines and their ilk take away jobs -- even white-collar ones?

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"We thought robots would allow us to take jobs that are more complicated and pack parts more efficiently and in the way the customer needs them," says Araten. Technology and robots were the answer to the challenge of trying to make money while doing business in global markets where overseas competitors can take advantage of cheap labor, he says.

Baxter robot
At toy maker K'NEX, a robot like this one handles both assembly and quality control functions.

Baxter is not the first robot the third-generation, family-run business has used in its 125,000-sq.-ft. Hatfield manufacturing facility; K'NEX bought its first robot seven years ago to do parts packaging. While Araten says Baxter is slower than other robots the toy maker has used, he notes that it can handle both assembly and quality control functions, "so we're trading speed for flexibility," he explains.

"We'd rather be on the ground floor and then get the benefits of [robots becoming] faster over time and get ahead of the competition," Araten says. "If we're wrong, then we've still got a slower robot that can do cool stuff."

Since February, Baxter has been in use at K'NEX's manufacturing facility, which is operated by sister company The Rodon Group, a maker of injection-molded plastic components that produces 10 million parts per day for customers in up to 50 industries, including consumer products, toys, pharmaceuticals, construction, healthcare, and food and beverage. Baxter is performing so well that it is now being trained to pack more "funky parts" for K'NEX's Nintendo Mario Kart products, says Araten, referring to the company's line of Mario racing toys.

Baxter packs the parts tightly and has eliminated much of the space between them, so "we believe we'll be able to use 20% to 40% fewer" boxes just for the tracks for Mario, he says.

Baxter is also being taught to pick a random sampling of parts off the belt, check them to make sure they have no defects and then put them in boxes for shipping to customers. If there looks to be something wrong with a part, Baxter sets off an alarm. "It has a vision system embedded in it, so we have a program of what we want it to look for" says Araten, explaining that the system takes a picture of a part and compares it to a picture of what the part should look like. "We make sure to show it a good part ... so it can do the comparisons," he adds.

In the coming months, Baxter will also learn how to assemble parts.

Michael Araten
"We'd rather be on the ground floor and then get the benefits of [robots becoming] faster over time and get ahead of the competition," says Michael Araten, president of toy maker K'NEX. "If we're wrong, then we've still got a slower robot that can do cool stuff."

One area that Rodon focuses on is making window parts for the housing construction industry. And Baxter could help out with that by assisting in the assembly of finished products, says Araten, explaining that it could, for example, attach a lock or a tilt latch to a window. "That will help us stay competitive," he says.

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