Insight

Lessons from Baxter: Intelligent Innovation for Automation Software

Alex Irwin

Baxter was groundbreaking. No question about it. But Baxter wasn’t a resounding success and was a better fit in academia than on the factory floor. What lessons can we learn from Baxter?

Baxter
Baxter was the original cobot, with a groundbreaking interface for programming, but wasn't able to meet the needs of its users.
Baxter
Baxter was the original cobot, with a groundbreaking interface for programming, but wasn't able to meet the needs of its users.

Meet Baxter.

Baxter revolutionized how robots could be trained by, and interact with, humans. Built by Rethink Robotics, Baxter was the first autonomous industrial robot designed to work safely with humans, making Baxter the first real cobot. Gerry Ens, Founder and CTO of Go West Robotics, developed the behavior-based AI for Baxter. As one of the first employees at Heartland (later to become Rethink Robotics), he personally holds three patents for Baxter’s novel robot control system for intelligent and intuitive task learning.

Baxter was groundbreaking. No question about it. But Baxter wasn’t a resounding success and was a better fit in academia than on the factory floor. Baxter’s programming interface was innovative, using human interactions to train Baxter’s motion. Unfortunately, Baxter was slower and weaker than most industrial robots. While other companies have since been more successful with cobots, Baxter created the cobot market by challenging norms and demonstrating what was possible technologically. We’d argue that Baxter failed by losing sight of what was practical and essential to its users. The lessons from Baxter have shaped our philosophy at Go West.

“Understand what’s possible but focus on what’s practical.” - Gerry Ens, Go West Robotics' CTO

Institute Modern Software Practices

When founding Go West, Gerry identified that industrial automation was growing and thriving, but there were limitations hindering its flexibility and widespread adoption. For example, a small handful of vendors dominate the industrial automation landscape, forcing manufacturers to change their processes to accommodate and pay a premium for licensing and customized features. Also, the closed development environments offered by many PLC and robot manufacturers make it challenging to implement practices that are common in mature software development environments, like source control, automated testing, version management, and systematic support for code reviews. Together, these factors increase the time integrators must spend supporting new installations and drive up the overall cost to implement and support a new robotic system.

Go West helps companies modernize their software development methods by integrating best practices and tools widely used elsewhere in software development but not commonplace in automation. These battle-tested practices and tools have been used for decades throughout the software development world and allow the implementation of flexible, highly customized software that meets your exact needs while being developed in a fraction of the time.

We make technology recommendations that often challenge the status quo, but the main goal of our systems is to support stable production operations. And we never lose sight of that.

Innovation in Software Development Makes Business Sense

When meeting with integrators, it doesn’t take much effort for us to demonstrate the savings a well-controlled development and release process can have when rolling out a new system to a client. We reduce the amount of time our clients spend writing code and being on-site for new installations by days or weeks. That not only saves our customers money, but it also increases their clients’ satisfaction, allows them to support more projects simultaneously, and reduces staffing constraints in a tight labor market.

When designing solutions, we don’t advocate for the latest shiny thing in technology. We are “tech” people at heart, so we enjoy staying on top of the latest technologies, but we focus on the “boring” things like well-tested, well-architected, readable, and reusable code. We make technology recommendations that often challenge the status quo, but the main goal of our systems is to support stable production operations. And we never lose sight of that.

Is there a topic you need help with or would like us to cover? Drop us a quick note and let us know: insights@gowestrobotics.com

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