In a recent paper, which was published in Science Robotics, scientists have taken three years to create two robotic arms which can assemble Ikea's 'Stefan' flat pack chair in about 20mins. Researchers from the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, have developed algorithms to assist the robots and "to emphasise the genericity of the setup, they used only commercial off-the- shelf (COTS) hardware: industrial robot arms, parallel grippers, force sensors, and three- dimensional (3D) camera."
Assistant Professor Pham Quang Cuong said in a post by CNBC, "The job of assembly, which may come naturally to humans, has to be broken down into different steps, such as identifying where the different chair parts are, the force required to grip the parts, and making sure the robotic arms move without colliding into each other," adding, "Through considerable engineering effort, we developed algorithms that will enable the robot to take the necessary steps to assemble the chair on its own."
So far, the robots can only semi-create the Stefan chair, as the robot needs to complete the next step which is to finish the job by bolting various parts together. “That could take a few more months,” said Pham. “It’s not significantly more difficult.”
In an article by the Guardian, Edward Johns, a roboticist at Imperial College London, said: “We will soon see manufacturing robots moving beyond car assembly lines, but the key long-term challenge is generalisation to everyday environments, outside of factories and laboratories. In particular, fine-grained object manipulation, such as hammering a nail into a hole, is extremely challenging for robots to adapt to new environments, and yet these are the skills which really showcase human dexterity above all other animals”.
While the Researchers from Nanyang Technological University perfect their developments, many challenges still face the robotic industry such as the correct identification of parts when bunched together, or the simple precision of dexterity when holding slippery objects, to the amount of pressure applied when holding such objects. Pham's work may not be used by Ikea, and it's not in Ikea's model to assemble furniture, but the research in supply robots with assembly plans, or the ability to machine learn from watching humans assemble objects is an advancement which the team will be focusing on.