If robots can successfully build furniture, then they can do anything.
However, putting together furniture it not the most popular of times, now homemakers could soon gain a helping hand from a dexterous new robot. Developed at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore, the machine has already demonstrated an ability to put together an IKEA chair all by itself...
There's no shame in struggling to assemble a bit of furniture. Really. The instructions are often nearly indecipherable, most of the parts look nearly the same, and even minor assemblies can feel like they require a minimum of three hands.
To add insult to injury, it appears that these robots have gotten the problem completely figured out. These robots take 20 minutes to build the chair by using off-the-shelf components. The challenge was an IKEA solid wooden chair, where the machine spent 11 minutes and 21 seconds planning the motion pathways, three seconds to locate the parts and 8 minutes and 55 seconds in assembly mode.
The robot is guided by algorithms, and the robot's main physical components include a 3D camera, parallel grippers on the end of industrial robotic arms capable of six-axis motion, and force sensors mounted on the wrist. The robots are meant to recreate the human ability to handle and put together intricate objects.
The robot starts by taking 3D photos of the different parts, which had been laid out on the floor to mimic the mess humans create when they open a box from IKEA. After creating a map of the positions of the different parts, the robot then starts assembling the chair, piece by piece.
"For a robot, putting together an IKEA chair with such precision is more complex than it looks," says Assistant Professor Pham Quang Cuong, who designed the robot with his team from NTU's School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. "The job of assembly, which may come naturally to humans, has to be broken down into different steps, such as identifying where the different chair parts are, the force required to grip the parts, and making sure the robotic arms move without colliding into each other. Through considerable engineering effort, we developed algorithms that will enable the robot to take the necessary steps to assemble the chair on its own."
The team is working to equip the robot with advanced artificial intelligence so that it can assemble the chair simply by looking at the instruction manual or an already finished example. It is also working with companies to put its manipulation abilities to use in applications like glass bonding for the automotive industry and drilling holes in metal parts for aircraft, dexterous tasks that industrial robots have traditionally not been well-suited to.
"One reason could be that complex manipulation tasks in human environments require many different skills," says Cuong. "This includes being able to map the exact locations of the items, plan a collision-free motion path, and control the amount of force required. On top of these skills, you have to be able to manage their complex interactions between the robot and the environment. The way we have built our robot, from the parallel grippers to the force sensors on the wrists, all work towards manipulating objects in a way humans would."
Still not convinced that a robot can assemble a chair faster than you? See the video below, and decide for yourself.