It may be difficult to keep track of the progress that is being made in robotics, but a useful (though informal) marker is how good the machines are for assembling Ikea furniture.
Why? Because building your average Billy library involves skills that are intuitive for humans but challenging for robots. Figuring out how a series of components fit together to make a finished product is basically a large 3D puzzle that involves complex movements and the manipulation of delicate objects such as pins and screws. For larger furniture, you also have to coordinate multiple actors. (Although it is true that robots find this part easier than humans).
With this in mind, here is your latest update of the Ikea Robot Assembly: they have improved again.
In an article published today in Science Robotics, researchers at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore describe how they instructed a pair of arms of industrial robots to assemble an Ikea Stefan chair "without special provisions for robotic assembly". The arms used 3D cameras to identify and track individual pieces, and force sensors to make sure they are not crushing anything. In general, the assembly of the chair took around 20 minutes. Therefore, not as fast as a human, but not too old.
The work is a step forward from Ikea's previous assembly systems, says Dr. Francisco Suárez-Ruiz, one of the researchers involved. Compared to the MIT IkeaBot system, the furniture that was assembled was more complex. And compared to the work done by the same team in Singapore in 2015, the assembly is more autonomous.
In both previous tasks, the furniture components were also labeled using reflective markers. "That way it's a bit easier because it makes it easier to track the object," Suárez-Ruiz told The Verge. "But it's not scalable because you can not join [markers] to everything." The MIT system also used clamps specially designed for assembly, unlike the available components used by Suárez-Ruiz and his colleagues.
However, there is still room for improvement, and this new Ikea assembly robot is not completely autonomous. The system was preprogrammed with 3D images of the components of the chair and with assembly instructions. (Robots autonomously plan each individual movement, but not in which order to do it or where each part is supposed to go.) In the document, researchers suggest that future updates exploit all this information by scanning the assembly manual.
Even so, robots that improve the assembly of Ikea furniture mean that robots are improving in jobs that currently can only be done by humans. Obviously, how exactly systems like this are implemented in the workplace (and if that implies the loss of work) is something that varies according to the industry and the company.
"In the future, we imagine that robots like this one should help with tedious or dangerous tasks," Suárez-Ruiz told The Verge. "There are so many industries in which these skills would be useful, such as logistics or packaging for e-commerce companies." Ikea furniture is just the beginning.