CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - In hopes to save thousands of woodworkers and carpenters from sawing injuries, a team from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) has created AutoSaw - robot-assisted carpentry.
Using design software and a pair of semi-autonomous, artificially-intelligent robots, AutoSaw users select a template from the software and adjust it to preference. The order is then turned into instructions for the robots, which pick up and saw necessary materials to their correct sizes - all on their own. The builder will then put the finished product together.
The AutoSaw system is still in a primitive stage says the MIT team, requiring human oversight and instruction. There are just four design templates to choose from and all have limited options. And a human operator still has to assemble the product, as well as setting up the workspace for the robots.
But it will certainly reduce risk of injury.
“If you’re building a deck, you have to cut large sections of lumber to length, and that’s often done on site,” says 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 also offers flexibility for designing furniture to fit space-constrained houses and apartments. For example, it could allow a user to modify a desk to squeeze into an L-shaped living room, or customize a table to fit in a microkitchen.
“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,” says CSAIL director and co-author Daniela Rus. “AutoSaw shows this potential for easy access and customization in carpentry.”
The MIT team explains how it works:
Software isn’t a foreign concept for some carpenters. “Computer Numerical Control” (CNC) can convert designs into numbers that are fed to specially programmed tools to execute. However, the machines used for CNC fabrication are usually large and cumbersome, and users are limited to the size of the existing CNC tools.
As a result, many carpenters continue to use chop-saws, jigsaws, and other hand tools that are low cost, easy to move, and simple to use. These tools, while useful for customization, still put people at a high risk of injury.
AutoSaw draws on expert knowledge for designing, and robotics for the riskier cutting tasks. Using the existing CAD system OnShape with an interface of design templates, users can customize their furniture for things like size, sturdiness, and aesthetics. Once the design is finalized, it’s sent to the robots to assist in the cutting process using the jigsaw and chop-saw.
To cut lumber the team used motion-tracking software and small mobile robots — an approach that takes up less space and is more cost-effective than large robotic arms.
Specifically, the team used a modified Roomba with a jigsaw attached to cut lumber of any shape on a plank. For the chopping, the team used two Kuka youBots to lift the beam, place it on the chop saw, and cut.
“We added soft grippers to the robots to give them more flexibility, like that of a human carpenter,” says Lipton. “This meant we could rely on the accuracy of the power tools instead of the rigid-bodied robots.”
After the robots finish with cutting, the user then assembles the new piece of furniture using step-by-step directions from the system.
In simulations, the team showed that they could build a chair, shed, and deck with AutoSaw. Using the robots, the team was able to make a table with an accuracy comparible to that of a human - with zero human blade contact.
“There have been many recent AI achievements in virtual environments, like playing Go and composing music,” says 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.”
The MIT team is looking to take AutoSaw further - hoping to integrate complex tasks such as drilling and gluing.
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