GREENVILLE — A new robot at Montcalm Community College (MCC) appears to be bringing (artificial) life to the college’s manufacturing curriculum.
Meet “Baxter,” the newest addition to college’s Greenville campus.
An industrial robot built by Rethink Robotics of Boston, Mass., it is designed for simple industrial jobs such as loading, unloading, sorting and handling of materials.
However, with an animated face capable of producing six facial expressions, a human-sized structure and two arms capable of a multitude of tasks, Baxter is beyond comparison to any other machine currently on the college campus.
Industrial Technology Instructor Charles Clise demonstrated the capabilities of the robot Tuesday evening in front of the MCC Board of Trustees at the Bill Braman Family Center for Education in Greenville.
Displaying the robot’s ability to work alongside and interact with humans, as well as communicate and follow commands, Clise believes Baxter will be a revolutionary learning tool for students at the college.
“It’s something from the near-future, that’s the best way to describe this,” he said. “It’s a teaching tool for us. It’s going to offer a lot of capabilities for our students.”
MCC Vice President for Student and Academic Affairs Rob Spohr said the college added Baxter as an instructional tool this spring, aiming to incorporate robotic technology into the advanced manufacturing curriculum to enhance learning opportunities for students.
“This is where industry is going,” he said. “By fall, we plan to incorporate robotics training in our current classes to train workers to be better prepared for changes that are occurring in the advanced manufacturing sector.”
According to Clise, an operator can program Baxter to move through a variety of desired actions. The robot can then repeat those exact actions.
Baxter’s arms have two elbows and a rotating wrist, which allow the operator to fine-tune its actions. A vision sensor in each arm makes Baxter capable of sensing and adapting to its tasks and its environment.
“It’s a tender type of robot, not one that is of large strength,” Clise said. “It’s used for loading, unloading, packaging and rearranging.”
MCC President Bob Ferrentino said the purchase of Baxter is part of the college’s long-term vision to better meet the training needs of the college’s business and industry partners.
“This is going to be great for our students,” he said. “Incorporating Baxter into our current curriculum is the first step in adding robotics training to better prepare students for changes in advanced manufacturing. We are also pursuing other robotics training capabilities with a plan for implementation in the fall.”
Ferrentino said those capabilities include a training of Fanuc robotics. Fanuc Corp. is one of the largest makers of industrial robots in the world, with the majority of the robots used in the factories of automobile and electronics manufacturers.
According to Ferrintino, the college aims to eventually offer certified training in Fanuc robotics for students, a step up above Baxter.
“The programing for Baxter and Fanuc is the same,” he said. “When students see Fanuc after working with Baxter, they’ll have learned some basic programing and basic functionality of the robot vision. When a Fanuc trainer comes in, our students will have a better advantage.”
According to Spohr, there aren’t many companies locally using the Baxter or Fanuc technology as of yet. The hope is that training local students to be competent in the robotics field will attract future investors, as well as allow students to seek job opportunities outside of Montcalm County.
“We’re also working to create a workforce that will help current companies be able to hire workers with the skills they need, and to attract new business and industry to our area,” he said. “Instead of reducing jobs, our representatives at Rethink Robotics believe this robot will help save U.S. jobs since it will help companies supplement their workforce and be more competitive.”
The Baxter unit, along with training classes for Clise, came in at a cost of $38,000 for the college.
According to Spohr, the MCC Foundation provided a grant in the amount of $20,000 toward the purchase of the robot.