Confused robot
Ikea flat-pack assembly confounds the best of us and even the best of robots so fariStock

If you're seriously starting to worry that robots might soon be able to take over your job, take heart − this probably won't be happening for a while, as robots find it even harder than humans do to assemble Ikea furniture from factory-made parts.

Researchers from the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore have developed a robot with the goal of getting it to autonomously assemble a wooden Ikea chair, but although their robot is very clever, it is still unable to completely finish building the chair. Like most flat-pack furniture, an Ikea chair comes with various parts that need to be joined together by slotting a small wooden cylinder, called a dowel, into a hole on one piece of wood and then slotting the other end of the dowel into the hole in the corresponding piece of wood.

The robot has six cameras for eyes to track up to five objects with a positional accuracy of up to 3mm, as well as two arms that are capable of six-axis motion. The robot also has two hands made from grippers that come with force sensors to measure how strongly objects are being gripped in the hand, and how much force needs to be used to push an object into contact with another object.

The researchers taught the robot how to put the furniture together by breaking the task down into three mini-tasks. The first task was for the robot to use one of its arms to locate and pick up the dowel. Next, the robot needed to pick up the piece of wood, and then finally, locate the hole and insert the dowel into it.

Why building flat-pack furniture is hard for robots

But you won't believe it – that's all that the robot has been able to achieve so far. The researchers had to create computer algorithms to help the robot feel with its grippers on the table when it was in contact with a table, and then to touch the dowel and realise what it was in order to pick it up. Another algorithm was also needed to help the robot use its gripper to feel along the surface of the wooden surface in order to find the hole, and then pick up the dowel and slowly push it against the area until it found the hole and could insert the dowel there.

And, of course, the pin insertion experiment was conducted in perfect lighting on white tables where it was easy for the robot to see. This is a far cry from what building Ikea furniture in your home usually looks like, with bits and pieces strewn all over the place.

The ideal is for robots to one day be clever enough to assemble pieces of furniture by themselves, but this is very difficult to achieve as humans have the fine motor skills that robots lack. Plus humans have to keep away from the robots in case they get injured by them. So, in a sense, there's no real need to worry about a robot revolution just yet, as it's going to take a very long time for robots to be able to truly imitate a human being.

The open-access paper, entitled "A Framework for Fine Robotic Assembly" is published in the Cornell University Library repository.