Flatpack Fear? Robot Assembles IKEA Chair in 20 Minutes

Going shopping at Ikea might fill you with ideas of how chic your living room could look, but nothing can prepare you for the inevitable chaos of assembling an entire couch set. Soon enough you’re surrounded with oddly-shaped pieces of wood with no hope of finishing before sundown. Thanks to researchers at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, there might be a robot construction worker to help soothe that Ikea anxiety.

A team of roboticists was able to program two mechanical arms to construct a Stefan chair in just over 20 minutes. Co-author Dr. Quang-Cuong Pham tells Inverse that he doesn’t know of any other work that is able to deal with a similar assembly task and that we could have robots building our Ikea purchases in the near future.

In a paper published in the journal Science Robotics, Pham and his colleagues describe how they used commercially available equipment to mimic human senses during the building processes.

Localization of workpieces by 3D vision. The estimated poses are indicated by the object models superimposed on the point cloud.

Suárez-Ruiz, Zhou, Pham, Sci. Robot. 3, eaat6385 (2018)

“At the start, the parts were placed randomly within the environment. This is similar to human assembly settings and contrasts with most existing works,” states the study. “To emphasize the genericity of the setup, we used only commercial off-the-shelf hardware: industrial robot arms, parallel grippers, force sensors, and three-dimensional camera. This reflects the genericity of human “hardware”: The same eyes and hands are used to assemble a large variety of objects.”

While this experiment was successful, the group had to hard-code the instructions of how to build the chair. This means these two robotics arms can only be used to put together this model chair and nothing else. Pham also stated that humans would likely be able to construct this piece of furniture faster than his robot.

“We didn’t study the performance of humans but it is probable that humans should outperform the robots,” he says. “One reason may be that human “hardware” is much better than industrial robot hardware. [But] we are interested in using the capabilities here in a range of manufacturing tasks in unstructured environments [such as] drilling, glue dispensing, and inspection.”

Planning a smooth, collision-free, bimanual motion in simulation, respecting the closed-chain constraint.

Suárez-Ruiz, Zhou, Pham, Sci. Robot. 3, eaat6385 (2018)

The team envisions this coming together by incorporating recent advances in artificial intelligence. Natural-language processing technology — A.I. capable of understanding and acting on written or spoken prompts — could be used to turn an Ikea manual into steps for the robot instead of having someone code the instructions.

While the idea of A.I. taking over everything we do might seem frightening, having a set of mechanical hands to help you when you’re struggling with new furniture doesn’t scream “robot apocalypse.” Plus you could give them a fist bump once they’re done.

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