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Designing Tools to Bring Manufacturing Back to US

May 21, 2014
Manual manufacturing in China is the result of 50 years of sending domestic production to far flung factories and is costing our country jobs.

Outsourced manufacturing involves a lot of touch points by hands Rodney Brooks told the 2014 IndustryWeek Best Plant conference earlier this month.

"All of the stuff we buy at Wal-Mart even today is largely made by hand," the keynote speaker said. "The iPad, for example, is reportedly touched by 325 different pairs of hands during assembly."

That, he said, seems like an awful lot of hand manufacturing. Way too much, in fact.

"We've been making stuff by hand in factories for 234 years now," he said. "Using our hands. I wanted to make something to break out of that."

Twenty-first century hand manufacturing in China, he explained, is the result of 50 years of sending domestic production to far flung factories to make our gadgets, gizmos and daily necessities in the cheapest way possible. Even if that means reverting back to 18th century techniques to do it.

That, he said, has cost our country jobs, manufacturing capacity and innovative power, not to mention defying the promise of the 21st century.

"I thought, there had to be a better way," Brooks said. "And I'm robot guy, so of course the answer I came up with happened to be robots… which is pretty convenient, really."

Brooks' newest company, Rethink Robotics, launched its first product last year: a slow-moving, worker-safe and adaptable little guy named Baxter.

Since its release, Baxter has become the poster robot for a while new category of industrial automation equipment – so called collaborative robots that are designed around software to make them safe, adaptable and, of course, affordable.

More on robotics on IndustryWeek.

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