Hoping to reduce the number of carpentry-related injuries that happen each year, a team from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) has created a system that lets both carpenters and novice carpenters customize and construct pieces of furniture with help from robots.

The system, called AutoSaw, lets users choose from a number of carpenter-designed templates for furniture such as chairs and desks. Eventually, the team believes that the system will be capable of constructing larger-scale items such as a deck or a porch.

"If you're building a deck, you have to cut large sections of lumber to length, and that's often done on site," said 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."

"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," said CSAIL director and co-author Daniela Rus. "AutoSaw shows this potential for easy access and customization in carpentry."

Drawing on both design knowledge and robotics, AutoSaw allows users to customize their furniture based on factors such as sturdiness, size and aesthetics while the robots help make that design a reality by assisting in the construction process, operating the jigsaw and chopsaw.

Once the pieces are cut, the user then assembles the furniture, following step-by-step instructions from the system.

"There have been many recent AI achievements in virtual environments, like playing Go and composing music," said 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."

Although still a research platform, the team has plans to make the system capable of accomplishing even more complex tasks like drilling and gluing.

"Our aim is to democratize furniture-customization," said Schulz. "We're trying to open up a realm of opportunities so users aren't bound to what they've bought at Ikea. Instead, they can make what best fits their needs."

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