Researchers at MIT have created a new robot-assisted carpentry system that, according to them, could make the creation of custom furniture and accessories safer, easier and cheaper.
It's called AutoSaw and it's made up of two parts: design software and semi-autonomous robots. Users select a software template (such as a chair, a table or a shed) and then adjust it to their liking, adjusting the size and shape. This order becomes instructions for the robots, which automatically collect and view the necessary materials for the correct size. And it is up to the user to put the finished product together.
At the moment, the whole process is quite basic and involves a lot of supervision and human instruction. There are only four design templates to choose from; they can only be customized in several ways; and an operator must not only assemble the product, but must also configure the workspace for the robots: place the wood and the benches, etc.
Even the self-controlling puzzle (which must be picked up and placed in its target material) has little power. Actually, it is a modified Roomba Create, with the plastic shell removed and a circular saw installed where you would expect to see a vacuum nozzle. It is a quick and intelligent solution, yes, but it is not particularly powerful. And at this moment, the wheels of the reciprocating saw of the robot only have enough torque to cut the foam board, not the wood.
But, says MIT postdoc CSAIL Jeffrey Lipton, first author in an article published today describing the work, this is just the beginning. Think of AutoSaw now as a proof of concept that shows how advanced robotics could fit into the workflow of a carpenter or carpenter, he says. Once the basic elements are in place (and they manage to heat that Roomba) the underlying technology could be incredibly useful.
"Within a few years, the builders could go to their work site, enter a number in the software, and the robots will cut and provide them with the parts they need," Lipton tells The Verge. He says that robot joinery assistants would allow workers to concentrate on really demanding work. "Simply standing and cutting wood is not a part of your high-skill, high-value work," says Lipton. "By creating these tools we do not want to replace carpenters, we want to improve safety and increase their skills."
AutoSaw is based on a series of previous projects, including IkeaBot, which used robots to assemble flat pack furniture, and InstantCAD, software headed by MIT PhD student Adriana Schulz, which facilitates the adjustment of designs by automatically calculating things like stress internal and resistance. This means that if you modify a table so that it is the right size for a customer, the software will inform you if it is structurally sound.
Wood may not be a futuristic material, but it has a future
Lipton, who trained as a carpenter in high school, says these projects are about exploring what technology can do to make working with wood easier and more productive. "It's not a futuristic material," he says. "Unlike plastic, it is not homogenous, so you can not extrude it from a nozzle and print it in 3D." But wood has many attractive properties. It is tough, flexible and valuable to us in a way that plastic will never be. "And it's also an inherently renewable resource!" Says Lipton. "Forget to grow in the trees, it's the tree."
And the business model for robot-assisted carpentry is also attractive. Hopefully, it would not leave carpenters without a job, but it could make their work easier and cheaper, allowing more people to buy their products. As an example of how robots could change the world of work, it's a good middle ground between zero automation and manufacturing that does not need humans at all.
And it's potentially safer, since the robots would do the dangerous job of cutting the wood. "When I worked as a carpenter, my boss had cut off his thumbs, and the number of people who are injured doing this work is amazing," says Lipton. He adds, however, that that does not mean that robotic carpentry is safe for all by now. "Do not tell people to hit a puzzle in the middle of your Roomba, I do not want anyone to try that, but us for now."