same thing for years. Baxter, in contrast, could work much like
a temp. With 10 minutes of training from any employee, it can
get to work on a job and after a few hours switch to another
one. It could relieve different workers at different times, and
roll with changes in the assembly line.
That’s why Chris Budnick, who has had a chance to try
Baxter out, wants to buy one. Budnick is president of Van-
guard Plastics in Southington, Connecticut, a 30-person injec-
tion-molding firm that makes parts on contract for medical-
equipment makers, automotive companies, and other manu-
facturers. Vanguard already uses more-conventional robot
arms to yank parts out of its molds. The arms are well suited
to that job, he says, because it takes precision, it doesn’t vary,
and the arms’ high speed keeps the expensive molding
machines operating at peak output. But then he has to pay
people to stuff the parts into bags and boxes for shipping—
using robot arms would require professional reprogramming
for each new part or package. Rethink, looking for user feed-
back, let Vanguard put Baxter to work earlier this year. “We
had him picking and packing in five minutes,” says Budnick.
“We think it would pay for itself in a year. We’d have it work-
ing three shifts and packing two different lines at once, one
with each arm. The sky is the limit with this thing.”
It’s not just that Baxter could save labor costs by replacing
a human employee. It could also open up opportunities to
reimagine the manufacturing process. Baxter won’t object to
working in less-populous locations, where it’s cheap to build
but hard to find labor. It won’t get sick from working in
extreme heat or cold, or from exposure to toxic substances
or poor air quality. It will uncomplainingly work graveyard
shifts, weekends, and holidays. It won’t get repetitive-stress
injuries from repeating the same motion 10,000 times a day.
The last thing we should be worrying about is protecting
the human’s place on the assembly line, counters Brooks, who
has visited numerous factories in many countries. “These are
mindless, repetitive jobs that turn people into robots,” he says.
Brooks adds that many factories are increasingly having trou-
ble finding people willing to fill them, especially in late-night
and weekend shifts. He reasons that if robots take those jobs,
the cost savings and productivity boost will create growth,
opening up positions more interesting than assembly-line
work. As a result, says Brooks, employees replaced by robots
won’t be let go; they will be promoted. “The PC didn’t replace
people in offices,” he says. “It made them more productive.”
Let’s hope Brooks is right, because if Baxter’s capabilities
continue to improve as envisioned, it could take away tens of
millions of jobs in the manufacturing and service industries.
The resulting productivity boom could lead to an
economic renaissance—if it doesn’t merely lead to
But first, Baxter has to work, and well enough to
get good reviews from early customers. So, Rethink is
being careful about who gets the first models. “We
want them to go to companies that will put them in
the sorts of applications we know they can succeed
at,” says Brooks—tasks such as picking up an object
from a conveyor and putting it into a bin.
Given that Amazon founder and warehouse-auto-
the last thing we should be
mation pioneer Jeff Bezos was the first to invest in
Rethink, there’s probably more to Baxter’s future than
picking things up and putting them down. In particu-
lar, says Brooks, Baxter’s abilities could grow quickly
after programmers get their hands on its software innards. And
they will soon enough, because Rethink will encourage outside
developers to take Baxter in new directions. Baxter may well
become the iPhone of robots, a popular platform backed by an
array of third-party apps. “At some point, we expect one of our
manufacturing partners will find the right application for Bax-
ter,” says Daly, “so he can help build himself.”
Still, Brooks expects many—maybe most—businesses to
initially dismiss the idea that they are ready for robots. He says
he got much the same reaction when he started talking about
robot vacuum cleaners. Brooks took to asking the skeptics if
they could imagine robots vacuuming homes in 50 years.
“They always said they could,” he says. “At which point I told
them that that meant we could agree that sometime between
now and 50 years from now, robot vacuum cleaners would be
coming into homes. All we were doing is arguing about where
along that timeline the change would actually happen.”
For Roomba, it turned out to be a couple of years. Now,
the clock has started ticking on Baxter. “I think everyone’s
going to be surprised,” says Brooks.
worrying about is protecting
the human’s place on the
assembly line, argues Brooks.
“these are mindless, repetitive
jobs that turn people into
robots,” he says.
David H. Freedman is a contributing editor for Inc. He wrote about
commercial real estate start-up 42Floors for the May issue.