HATFIELD, PA. — Custom injection molding is an early adopter of the cute-faced, two-armed Baxter robot.
Rodon Group LLC is welcoming a new employee, as Baxter the robot is set to begin stacking sections of Super Mario racetracks from its sister company, K'Nex.
Baxter is designed to work side-by-side with human employees. It sports animated eyes and sensors that can tell a person is nearby, so Baxter will turn its head to look at you. Cameras on the wrists determine how to grab a part. Workers can teach the robot.
On Presidents' Day, a crew from Rethink Robotics Inc. of Boston set up Baxter at Rodon's plant in Hatfield, outside of Philadelphia. The following day, a Wall Street Journal reporter was scheduled to visit for a story.
Rodon is one of the first industrial users of Baxter. Rethink Robotics introduced Baxter, priced at $22,000, last fall. "We were one of the first manufacturers to go up to Rethink in Boston. And they were as happy to see us as we were to see them," said Lowell Allen, senior vice president of manufacturing.
Rethink has designed the robot to perform repetitive tasks, like picking parts off a conveyor belt and putting them into a box. Allen said that's how Rodon will use, to stack lengths of K'Nex race track into shipping boxes.
Automation is a big story these days, as U.S. manufacturing has rebounded, even winning back work from China, dubbed "reshoring." Rodon is already one of the most highly automated plastics molding plants in the United States. Robots run on every one of its 106 injection molding machines. Its motto: "We Beat China Pricing."
U.S.-made toys are a rarity, a fact highlighted by President Barack Obama when he visited K'Nex and Rodon on Nov. 30.
And now, K'Nex has been approved to sell some of its construction toys in China, winning China's CCC safety certification. President and CEO Michael Araten said the company spent all of 2012 trying to win approval.
"We'll be using Taobao, which is the combination of Amazon and eBay in China, as an online selling tool for us, to sell our Angry Birds [building sets], our core K'Nex sets and some of our Nintendo sets into the Chinese marketplace," Araten said. "There's actually a section on the site for made in the U.S.A. products. Some are clothes. Some are electronics. And now our toys will be added to that, so that affluent Chinese consumer can find made in the U.S.A. products."
While automation has helped fuel a resurgent factory sector, that doesn't mean manufacturing will hire enough people to make a big dent in U.S. unemployment. At Rodon, for example, one operator runs 15 injection molding machines. Robots, vision inspection and controls like in-mold sensors keep quality levels high.
Two other plastics processors also are "hiring" Baxter. Nypro Inc. has ordered one Baxter, which has been at headquarters in Clinton, Mass., under evaluation for several weeks, said Nypro spokesman Al Cotton.
In about two weeks, it will move through a month's worth of testing at Clinton, then Nypro molding factories in Mebane, N.C., and San Diego. The plant that runs the most effective test will win the Baxter, Cotton said.
Vanguard Plastics Corp., a custom molder in Southington, Conn., was a beta test site for an early version of Baxter, about a year ago, said President Chris Budnick. Rethink Robotics took it back to Boston, then brought the robot back for a second round of testing in August. "They needed to understand how the tool is ultimately going to be used," he said.
Budnick, interviewed Feb. 19, said Vanguard Plastics officials have decided to buy a Baxter, but have not yet issued a purchase order. "We're thinking it could happen within the next eight to ten weeks. There's some integration things that we're working through right now," he said.
Vanguard Plastics will use Baxter to remove medical cups off a conveyor and place them into a bagger.
Burnick thinks plastics molders will be a big early market for Baxter. "It's ideal for that robot because the payloads are fairly light and the production rates are fast, but not way too fast," he said. "The thing about robot Baxter is how robust it is." Baxter is very easy to program. "But it's got to stand up to the rigors of the factory floor."
Officials of Rethink Robotics could not be reached for comment.
Rodon also helped Rethink engineers to focus on end-use applications in a factory, by sending people to Boston early in the process, Allen said. Rodon is a good candidate for using Baxter to put parts in boxes, because many of the company's beam robots currently use end-of-arm tooling that can adjusts in size, once it removes parts, to package them very precisely.
"The nice thing about Baxter, he's kind of a collaborative robot," Allen said. "In other words, he can work alongside humans. You don't need guarding, which is really big. All of our servo-robots require guarding because they're coming to this point, whether your head's in the way or not. Where Baxter, you put your hand or your head in the way of the tool path and it senses your presence and backs off."
And Baxter is a friendly co-worker, Allen said. "It has sonar even, so when you enter its workspace, there's a certain area that his arms will work in, and you enter that area, his face will look up at you and let you know that he knows you're there."