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On the job

Rethink Robotics engineer helps bring robots to life

Robert White showed off Baxter, an industrial robot designed to work along with humans on production lines.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Robert White showed off Baxter, an industrial robot designed to work along with humans on production lines.

Making a robot is one of the most complex system engineers can build, said Robert White, principal mechanical engineer at Rethink Robotics in Boston.

“It’s not just the mechanics of building it,” he said, “but the electromechanics of having it move and the software, hardware, and mechanical systems all working together.”

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White was a main player in the creation of Baxter, an industrial robot used for simple repetitive production line tasks such as sorting and loading. He is working on the next generation of Baxters.

You’ve been with Rethink Robotics since its concept. What are you working on now?

I like to say that we’re working on the “special sauce” [that] makes manufacturing robots more useful for things like precision assembly. We are perfecting the controls and software using information we learned from putting Baxter in the real world. We want a safer, faster, and more affordable robot.

What is the reaction to Baxter on the factory floor?

People are pretty accepting of Baxter; he looks very humanoid — he has a face screen that gives feedback; he can look surprised, confused, or even sad. Unlike traditional industrial robots, Baxter isn’t in a safety cage to protect people around him — he would never pin a person to the wall like some robots that have no sensing devices.

What are considerations when designing a robotic arm?

We start at the task that we want the robot to do and work backward. If the arm is 30 inches, how far does it have to reach out to pick up an object and move around? How much strength should the arm have? Can the arm move quickly through the air but still be extremely precise when picking or placing an object?

Were you involved with the design of the gripper that robots use like hands?

There are hundreds of different grippers or claws out there, from scoops to three to two prongs. We built our own grippers. One gripper has 10- to 12-inch fingers on the end and can pick up a tall stack of cups and drop them into a box.

How many robots are floating around Rethink Robotics?

Since we’ve gone through different generations of robots, there are a number of prototypes around the office. In the center of the building, 20 to 30 robots are set up, all red-and black-schemed Baxters. Another room has robots doing tasks to evaluate repeatability. Some robots have been doing the same task for months on end.

Have any eerie robot stories to tell?

Yes, I was at work late at night and passed by a robot that had always been inactive. As I walked past, it suddenly woke up, grabbed a puck, and put it in a box. When you’re in the office all by yourself, something like this is a bit creepy.

Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at cindy@cindyatoji.com.
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