When Jeffrey Lipton was first learning carpentry, the master carpenter who was training him had cut off both his thumbs–twice. His uncle had already lost part of a finger. In college, a classmate split his hand in half. The more Lipton was around power saws growing up, the more he recognized that these injuries were a cost of the craft–sometimes avoidable, perhaps, but not completely eliminable.
Until now, perhaps. Today Lipton is a researcher at MIT, and he has teamed up with his colleagues Adriana Schulz and Daniela Rus to build a robotic sawing system called AutoSaw that could not just change the way carpenters build projects in factories or on construction sites, but one day allow any Home Depot weekend warrior to build the custom cabinets of their dreams without risking life and limb.
“The digital revolution has affected a lot of industries. But for the most part, the biggest revolution in carpentry in the last few decades was the lithium-ion battery,” Lipton says. “It made my tools a lot lighter! But carpentry is waiting for the computing revolution.”
Lipton is talking about tedious task automation. Could a construction worker just hand a pile of 2x4s to a robot and say, “Go,” like an accountant does taxes in an Excel spreadsheet? Could a homeowner create detailed 3D furniture models as easily as their teenage daughter plays around with Instagram filters?
AutoSaw can do both. The first part of Lipton’s system are the robots themselves. In one case, the team modified a Roomba vacuum cleaner with a jigaw, so it can drive over sheets of wood, slicing perfect designs. In another, a pair of Kuka bots were trained to take a design, then drive to a pile of boards, pick the right one up, and slice it to spec on a completely stock chop saw. That’s right–the robots are learning to use the same power tools that you do.
“The way most things are fabricated with a robot is through a fixed robot arm, and it’s hard to bring a giant CNC machine or robot arm to a jobsite,” says Lipton. “We can use the same mobile tools carpenters are using with these mobile robots.”
The software, spearheaded by Schulz, is similarly easy to use. It’s preloaded with a few design templates, like for a deck chair or table, and you can customize its size and shape with a few simple sliders. Once you get the design to where you like, the software generates a shopping list for you, along with the board-by-board cutting workflow for your robotic companion. (You’ll still have to nail and screw it together yourself.)
So far, AutoSaw has proven its ability to design and cut a set of tables in a controlled lab. Without a lot of further development, though, it could scale to a project as large as a backyard deck.
Its creators imagine that AutoSaw will roll out in three stages as the system gains capabilities, and resilience at responding to less and less predictable environments. The first stage would be integration in factories, allowing a company like Ikea to create customized furniture at scale. The second stage would be construction sites, where AutoSaw could help cut all the planks that go into a building. Finally, the third stage is the Home Depot weekend rental, where anyone could rent a bot-and-saw kit to build some furniture or custom storage.
It’s not just AutoSaw’s safety pitch that make it so appealing in the long term. The technology could one day allow anyone to own high-end, customized personal furnishings. While the system only produces wood furniture using conventional tools for now, there’s no reason it couldn’t eventually be programmed to operate using other materials and fabrication processes.
“We’re moving toward a new manufacturing revolution with 3D printers and robots to make objects with unprecedented complexity,” says Schulz. “It’s not just about creating customized products…but products we’re never been able to build before.”