This Robot Builds People's Dream Furniture

MIT engineers reconfigured traditional robotics systems associated with carpentry to make carving and sculpting safer for humans.
Shelby Rogers
PhD student Adriana Schulz co-led the development of this unique sawing robot.MITCSAIL/Youtube

While carpentry has gotten safer over the years, a group of engineers from MIT want to reduce the risk of lost fingers, cuts and bruises even further.

The team's new finger-saving system also modified commonly found technology, including pieces from the famous automated vacuuming robot Roomba. 

The AutoSaw robot system allows non-skilled wannabe carpenters design the furniture they want in a safe, secure environment. The system gives users the ability to customize a range of carpenter-designed templates for chairs, desks, and other furniture, according to a university press release. The AutoSaw can even be used for larger projects like building a back porch. 

“If you’re building a deck, you have to cut large sections of lumber to length, and that’s often done on site,” said Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) postdoc Jeffrey Lipton, who was a lead author on a related paper about the system. “Every time you put a hand near a blade, you’re at risk. To avoid that, we’ve largely automated the process using a chop-saw and jigsaw.”

The system even gives users the ability to custom fit their furniture into uniquely-shaped houses and spaces. The MIT team said it would even give someone the ability to create an interesting table to fit a micro-kitchen space. 

The system works by expanding upon carpentry's Computer Numerical Control (CNC) system -- software that's far from foreign to many carpenters. The problem with CNC, however, is that the tools used to execute those designs are often cumbersome. The size of those 'custom' gadgets often lead to carpenters opting out of the software and using hand tools that pose a higher risk of injury. 

However, the AutoSaw could combine the precision of software with the maneuverability of hand tools. It leverages years of expert knowledge about design and leaves robots to do the riskier parts of the building. It uses CAD OnShape for design purposes. Once a user is happy with their design, they can send it to the robotic system to bring those designs to reality. 

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“Robots have already enabled mass production, but with artificial intelligence (AI) they have the potential to enable mass customization and personalization in almost everything we produce,” noted CSAIL director and co-author Daniela Rus. “AutoSaw shows this potential for easy access and customization in carpentry.”

“We added soft grippers to the robots to give them more flexibility, like that of a human carpenter,” said Lipton. “This meant we could rely on the accuracy of the power tools instead of the rigid-bodied robots.”

The team was also able to make a table with human accuracy without ever needing a human to go near a blade. 

“There have been many recent AI achievements in virtual environments, like playing Go and composing music,” said Hod Lipson, a professor of mechanical engineering and data science at Columbia University. “Systems that can work in unstructured physical environments, such as this carpentry system, are notoriously difficult to make. This is truly a fascinating step forward.”

Ph.D. student Adriana Shulz cowrote the paper and will be part of the team presenting the research in May at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) in Brisbane, Australia. She said she wants to help people think outside of the confines of IKEA and other popular furniture providers. 

“Our aim is to democratize furniture-customization,” Schulz said. “We’re trying to open up a realm of opportunities so users aren’t bound to what they’ve bought at Ikea. Instead, they can make what best fits their needs.”

Via: MIT

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