Even robots can't figure out how to build IKEA furniture

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We all know this nightmare: You just got back from IKEA. You have an unassembled chair and belly full of meatballs. Now, you will assemble it at home, because you need it, and you are excited because it will make you feel, for a moment, like a builder.


But there will be too many bolts. Or not enough bolts? And you'll put something in backwards, and have to start over, and then YouTube search "IKEA chair," and eventually you will successfully put the chair together, though it will tilt to the left a little when you sit down and already be a little scratched. You won't feel all that much like a builder.

You're not alone, though, because IKEA furniture is hard, even for robots, who are not yet up to the task of complex assembly. But some are getting close.

Researchers Francisco Suarez-Ruiz and Quang-Cuong Pham from the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore have built a robot that, while unable to successfully build an IKEA chair, marks a step forward. At this point, robots are great at working in assembly lines, but can't do much more than that.


In a recent paper discussing their findings, the researchers explain why the task is so complicated for robots:

Most robots currently used in the industry are position-controlled, that is, they can achieve very precise control in position and velocity, at the expense of poor, or no, control in force and torque. Yet, force or compliant control is crucial while assembling fragile, soft, small parts. Assembly tasks imply by essence contacts between the robot and the environment, making the sensing and control of contact forces decisive.

Other robots have managed to put together less-complicated IKEA products. In 2013, MIT scientists built IkeaBots that worked together to assemble a table.


Suarez-Ruiz and Pham recognize there's a long way to go until the robot can build an IKEA chair on its own, and write that "future works will include the use of 3D perception systems suitable for industrial applications," among other things. Until robots master the art of IKEA building, we can all share this plight.

Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.

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