Machines learned to assemble IKEA’s semi-disposable furniture

Oi! Robots! Take this human job. PLEEEAASE take this job


Singaporean scientists have asked the question: “Can robots assemble an IKEA chair?” and come back with enough of a “Yes” that The Register feels it time to call for robots to take this job away from humans. Pleeeease, robots. Take this job away from us!

The boffins behind this breakthrough, assistant professor Pham Quang Cuong and a team of students, all of Nanyang Technological University, were cognizant of previous attempts at unpacking flat-pack kit that had used bespoke kit. So they instead used off-the-shelf robots and open-source code like the Point cloud library and gave them the job of assembling a “STEFAN” chair.

As the video below shows, the bots clearly know Bob The Builder's couplet: "Can we build it? Yes we can!"

Youtube Video

What did you just see? As the University has explained, “The robot starts the assembly process by taking 3D photos of the parts laid out on the floor to generate a map of the estimated positions of the different parts.”

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Next, custom algorithms help the robot to plan “a two-handed motion that is fast and collision-free” and which “needs to be integrated with visual and tactile perception, grasping and execution.”

Another challenge was figuring out how much force to exert when inserting dowels into holes.

The robots didn’t do all the work themselves - assistant professor Pham and his students laid out the parts for the bots to find. But once unleashed, the machines did the job in 20 minutes and 19 seconds with over half of that time spent on computing the required actions. Actual build time was nine minutes, a little less than the average human according to IKEA.

Success came only at the fourth attempt, a failure rate that would put IKEA out of business. Problems on early attempts included the bots breaking some parts.

The lesson from the experiment is not that the drudgery of furniture assembly may one day be spared us all, but that generic bots – rather than expensive specialists - can be trained to do tasks that require considerable dexterity. So while you’re celebrating the prospect of ditching your Allen keys, feel free to keep worrying about The Rise of The (Generic) Machines.

The team's paper is here. ®

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