Southington, Conn. — Three Baxter collaborative robots toil away at Vanguard Plastics Corp., a small custom molder.
A fourth Baxter is set aside from production, reserved instead for employee training.
President Chris Budnick said the Baxters have helped improve productivity at the molder, which runs 21 injection molding machines and generates about $7 million in annual sales.
Vanguard Plastics employs 42 people at its plant in Southington. The company is family owned, which is obvious when you drive into the small parking lot and see the vegetable gardens, their yields shared with employees. If Budnick has a particularly stressful day, he sometimes goes out and pulls weeds.
"A factory our size in China would have over 100 people. That's the bottom line. That's how we can compete. We have less people, or if you want to look at it another way, we're twice as productive. And we're profitable and we're not moving to Mexico or threatening to move to Mexico. We're staying in New England," he said.
Baxter robots have an expressive computer-screen "face," making the two-armed robots from Rethink Robotics Inc. familiar even to non-technical people. The robots are collaborative, meaning they can work side-by-side with an employee and do not need safety guarding.
Baxter robots can handle a payload up to 5 pounds, and they move in a deliberate fashion. They are no match for the speedy Wittmann robots zipping back and forth over the presses at Vanguard's molding factory. Instead, they perform tasks like handling a steering column assembly — two molded parts that are first put together by an employee. The Baxter robot moves the parts past a vision inspection system where three cameras check 13 different quality aspects on the automotive part.
The Boston-based Rethink Robotics launched the Baxter robot in 2012. The following year, Vanguard became one of the first injection molding companies to buy one. Budnick said the second and third Baxters came after that, a year apart.
Vanguard bought the fourth one earlier this year. During a plant visit, the wheeled robot sat off to the side, unplugged, waiting to be used for training.