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MIT’s robot carpenters will saw wood for you, but you have to make the furniture yourself

MIT’s robot carpenters will saw wood for you, but you have to make the furniture yourself

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MIT’s Adriana Schulz, who created the carpentry design software, posing with two Kuka Youbots, used to pick up and move wood.
MIT’s Adriana Schulz, who created the carpentry design software, posing with two Kuka Youbots, used to pick up and move wood.
Photo by MIT CSAIL

Researchers from MIT have created a new system of robot-assisted carpentry that they say could make the creation of custom furniture and fittings safer, easier, and cheaper.

It’s called AutoSaw and it’s made up of two parts: design software and semi-autonomous robots. Users select a template from the software (like a chair, table, or shed) and then adjust it to their liking, tweaking the size and shape. This order is then turned into instructions for the robots, which autonomously pick up and saw the necessary materials to the correct size. And it’s then up to the user to put the finished product together.

At the moment, the whole process is pretty basic, and involves a lot of human oversight and instruction. There are only four design templates to choose from; they can only be customized in a few ways; and an operator not only has to assemble the product, but also has to set up the workspace for the robots — laying out the wood and benches and so on.

Even the self-driving jigsaw (which has to be picked up and placed on its target material) is underpowered. It’s actually a modified Roomba Create, with the plastic casing removed and a circular saw fitted where you might expect to see a vacuum nozzle. It’s a quick clever solution, yes, but it’s not a particularly powerful one. And right now, the wheels of the robot jigsaw only have enough torque to cut through foam board — not wood.

But, says MIT CSAIL postdoc Jeffrey Lipton, first author on a paper published today describing the work, this is just the beginning. Think of AutoSaw now as a proof of concept that shows how advanced robotics could fit into the workflow of a carpenter or joiner, he says. Once the basic elements are in place (and they manage to soup up that Roomba) the underlying technology could be incredibly useful.

“In a few years from now, builders might go to their job site, punch a number into the software, and the robots will cut and bring them the pieces they need,” Lipton tells The Verge. He says that robot carpentry assistants would allow workers to concentrate on the really demanding work. “Just standing around and cutting lumber is not a high-skill, high-value part of their job,” says Lipton. “By creating these tools we don’t want to replace carpenters — we want to improve safety and augment their skillset.”

AutoSaw draws on a number of earlier projects, including IkeaBot, which used robots to assemble flat-pack furniture, and InstantCAD — software spearheaded by MIT PhD student Adriana Schulz, which makes it easier to tweak designs by automatically calculating things like internal stress and resistance. This means that if you modify a table to make it the right size for a customer, the software will let you know if it’s structurally sound.

Wood may not be a futuristic material — but it does have a future

Lipton, who trained as a carpenter in high school, says these projects are all about exploring what technology can do to make working with wood easier and more productive. “It’s not a futuristic material,” he says. “Unlike plastic, it’s not homogenous, so you can’t extrude it from a nozzle and 3D-print it.” But wood has a great many attractive properties. It’s hardy, flexible, and valuable to us in a way plastic never will be. “And it’s an inherently renewable resource too!” says Lipton. “Forget growing on trees, it is the tree.”

And the business model for robot-assisted carpentry is attractive, too. Hopefully, it wouldn’t put carpenters out of a job, but could instead make their work easier and cheaper, allowing more people to buy their products. As an example of how robots could change the world of work, it’s a nice halfway point between zero automation and manufacturing that doesn’t need humans at all.

And it’s potentially safer, as robots would do the dangerous job of sawing the wood. “When I worked as a carpenter, my boss had cut off both of his thumbs. The number of people who get injured doing this work is staggering,” says Lipton. He adds, though, that that doesn’t mean robot carpentry is safe for everyone to take up just yet. “Don’t tell people to go sticking a jigsaw in the middle of their Roomba. I don’t want anyone attempting that but us for now.”