How many times have you made the trek to IKEA, spotted a coffee table you loved, but found that it was just too wide for your living room? Customizing that piece of furniture would require some handy work with a saw or a pricy trip to a carpenter.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have created AutoSaw, a semi-automatic system of robot carpenters that they say will allow for simple, cheap, and safe design of custom furniture, all without the malevolence of, say, The Lego Movie’s robot draftsmen. Jeffrey Lipton, lead researcher of the study and MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab postdoc, tells Inverse it could be commercially available in about four years.

The paper for this study will be presented in May at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Brisbane, Australia.

Chop saw process from left to right: Robots team lift the lumber, transport it, place it on the chop saw to re-grasp, slide the lumber to the proper length, and the chop saw cuts the lumber.
Chop saw process from left to right: Robots team lift the lumber, transport it, place it on the chop saw to re-grasp, slide the lumber to the proper length, and the chop saw cuts the lumber.

“One of the key problems we’re trying to solve is sometimes you want your IKEA furniture to be just a little different,” Lipton, who melded his passion for carpentry with his studies, tells Inverse. “That level of customization gets very expensive very quickly. It can run you up to ten times more than something at IKEA for the same result just because you needed a craftsperson to produce it. This is trying to reduce that barrier.”

AutoSaw has two components: Software that lets users design their furniture on a computer and the robots that still need a helping hand from human carpenters.

Users can select from a list of furniture templates, which they can tweak to their liking. This blueprint is then sent over to the team of robots that cut up the lumber and create specific assembly instructions for the user. Think of it like a droid-powered IKEA.

Lipton explains that AutoSaw is not meant to replace carpenters, but to assist them in the, “dull, dirty, and dangerous” jobs like slicing wood all day, that comes with the craft.

Stress distribution on different variations of the chair model (top) and elastic deformation on variations on the shed model (bottom)
Stress distribution on different variations of the chair model (top) and elastic deformation on variations on the shed model (bottom)

“[AutoSaw is] targeting the lowest level tasks,” he says. “[This] means carpenters will be able to expand the set of time they are spending on the more valuable part of their job and at the same time increasing the access to their skillset.”

He compares this to what happened in the Eighties, when there was a boom in demand for accountants when Microsoft Excel was first released.

“We introduced Excel and all of a sudden you got more demand for accountants because it was easier for them to do their job,” stated Lipton. “We really see AutoSaw going in the same direction where it’s not replacing your high-end craftsperson but it’s augmenting their skill set so they don’t have to worry about just chopping wood.”

The experts use this software feature to define all of the connections on the model and those are used by AutoSaw's algorithm to automatically generate assembly instructions.
The experts use this software feature to define all of the connections on the model and those are used by AutoSaw's algorithm to automatically generate assembly instructions.

This system could take many forms a few years down the line. Lipton says that if they are able to partner with larger organizations, like IKEA or power tool companies, AutoSaw could come to market even sooner than in four years. But he did not want anchor down how the final product might look like.

If Lipton and his team are able to keep improving their creation, carpenters could have the time to focus more on the artistry of the craft, rather than the mindless tasks that come with it. And you can have — or even halve — the U-shaped coffee table you’ve always dreamed of.