Assembling just about anything from Ikea can be a chore. Those pictorial instructions can be vague in their simplicity, those wooden dowels sometimes just don't fit and those hex keys can be murder on your fingers. That's why flat-pack furniture often elicits a resigned sigh of defeat — before you even unpack it. And once you start building the darn thing, well, there's usually not enough booze available to make the process go smoothly.
Enter the off-the-shelf robot built by engineers at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University. In a study published in Scientific Robotics, the researchers outline how they built the robot with two arms, 3-D cameras, grippers and force sensors, programmed it to build a Stefan chair and then let it decide how to build the chair. To make things a little more like real life the engineers made sure the parts were randomly placed in the work area. (However, we think they should have allowed one of the pieces to roll under the sofa, never to be seen again, since that always seems to happen.)
So while one robot arm holds a frame, the second arm grabs one of those infernal dowels to insert it into the hole. One of the key advances the engineers were interested in making was whether or not the robot could use enough force at the right time to get the dowel in the hole. But since the camera isn't as precise as a human eye, the robot has to be careful not to use too much or too little force, or misjudge where the hole is entirely. Additionally, the arms have to work together when they move, synchronizing when they lift pieces, put them together and determine how much force they're using to do so. When humans work together to build Ikea furniture, it normally results in a shattered relationship.
Impressively, the robot was able to handle the task in about 20 minutes. It took 3 seconds to scan its environment to locate all the pieces and then it spent 11 minutes and 21 seconds to decide how it was going to put the chair together. Actual assembly took about 8 minutes and 55 seconds. It's not as fast as two humans working together, , but at least the two robot arms are still friends.
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