I recently visited the HQ of Rethink Robotics and came away completely impressed with the company, the robots, and the potential for this company to transform the manufacturing industry, especially the low and mid-market manufacturers that were previously unable to make the investment in robotics. The market for robotics is expected to increase significantly over the coming years (16.8% CAGR forecast through 2020), with many vendors, such as Rethink Robotics, innovating and bringing robotics to areas of the market that have been left under served in regards to robotics.
Rethink Robotics Overview
Headquartered in Boston, MA, Rethink Robotics was founded on the principle of bringing robots to the manufacturing industry that were safe to be around, simple to use, flexible enough to move from job to job, and affordable for a broader range of applications. The founder, Rodney Brooks, recognized the need for such a robot during many trips to Asian manufacturing facilities where dull and repetitive tasks were conducted by massive groups of low wage labor. Identifying with the mundane processes and the high turn-over in these facilities, Mr. Brooks concluded that there was indeed a market for low cost robots to add value to these processes. However, at the time (early 2000's) there were no robots in this space, rather robotic manufacturers focused on the industrial robotic space where cage-less operation and collaboration were not core principles of the devices.
Fast forward to 2012, and Rethink Robotics has introduced the world's first cost effective collaborative robot, Baxter. Baxter is a safe, flexible, simple to use, and low cost robot aimed at bringing robotics to all levels of manufacturing organizations.
The organization itself has the feel you would expect from an innovative start-up. The offices are located in a trendy refit mill, with brick accents and an open concept layout. Funded by GE Ventures, Goldman Sachs, and other innovation driven VC's, Rethink Robotics has a very collegial vibe, with an abundance of talent that appear fully committed to the vision of innovation in the field of collaborative robotics. With its strong ties and close proximity to MIT and its innovative culture, Rethink is at an advantage when it comes to attracting some of the brightest minds in the field of robotic engineering. This advantage has clearly played a role in the development and advancement of the robots being produced at Rethink Robotics.
In addition to Baxter, Rethink Robotics recently (2015) released its second robot Sawyer. Sawyer has been produced with the same core principles, yet is designed with several differences giving Rethink Robotics a solution for an even broader range of manufacturing clients.
The following table provides a high level overview of Baxter in comparison to Sawyer:
306 lbs with optional pedestal
Degrees of Freedom
14 (7 per arm)
Degrees of Freedom
7 (single arm)
1210mm (3.97 ft)
1260mm (4.13 ft)
Packaging, kitting, line loading, material handling, and more
Machine tending, circuit board testing, material handling, packaging, kitting, line loading, order fulfillment, and more
A couple elements in the table above stand out, relative to the principles of Rethink Robotics. First is the price, with the average selling price of an industrial robot over $53,000, these robots are clearly priced for a different market. Baxter and Sawyer have been designed to fill a void in the manufacturing market that has not traditionally been served by industrial robotics. Which makes sense considering the low payload, clearly with payloads under 10 lbs these robots are not designed to be lifting heavy materials, they are designed for low weight applications requiring high precision movements.
Simplicity, Safety, Intelligence, and Flexibility
Back to the core messaging, has Rethink Robotics developed robots that are in fact simple, safe, intelligent, and flexible? Absolutely! During my visit, I had the opportunity to "program" both a Baxter and Sawyer, which I was able to do after only a 5 minute tutorial. What makes them simple, safe, intelligent, and flexible?:
- Simplicity – Each of these robots can be "programed" for a movement by simply holding down a button on the arm and then manually moving the arm in the motion that you require. Simple enough. On the devices that I experienced each was equipped with a gripper, which is "programmed" in the same fashion as the arm, simply move the arm and squeeze the gripper. Training on these devices, from what I could tell, is relatively straight forward, which really enables someone with no technical background in robotics to work alongside these robots and control them as needed.
- Safety – Yup, I stood right in the way of the robots arm as it came at me. Sure, it gave me a little nudge, but that was about it. The robots are equipped with an abundance of sensors that enable them to capture and understand their surroundings, but even more important from a safety perspective is the spring mechanism built into the robots. If a person were to become pinned by one of the robots arms, they just have to push a little bit and the arm will move back allowing the person unpin themselves. Additionally, when a Baxter or Sawyer meets with resistance in their path of movement, they will attempt to continue a couple of times (slow and controlled) and will stop if they can not continue.
- Intelligence – These systems are classified as "smart" collaborative robots. Not only are they simple to use, they are capable of changing their own behavior based on the conditions of their surroundings. Consider how their movements are "programmed", you manually move the arm. In this movement, there is bound to be inconsistencies in the motion, as we as humans tend to be imprecise in our motion. What Baxter and Sawyer can do, is figure out the imperfections in the movement and automatically adapt to smooth the movement to become more precise and efficient. Not only can the robots be "programmed" by manual movement, they also have the capability learn through demonstration. With the abundance of sensors built in, they have the capacity to learn through seeing. Pretty smart.
- Flexibility – Manufacturing environments today require a high degree of flexibility. A perfect example of task flexibility is the capability for Baxter and Sawyer to capture an image code (similar to a QR code) through vision sensors on their arms that contain the specific movement relative to a task. This enables them to perform a variety of tasks based on the card that is in front of them at a given time that tells the robot what to do. This feature makes these robots easy to redeploy and/or fill in where needed. Additionally, due to the low weight and mobile platforms, Baxter and Sawyer are easy enough to move to different locations throughout a facility, yet with the simple programming can be up and running in a new location in minutes.
These features set Baxter and Sawyer apart from the traditional rigid and costly deployments of larger scale industrial robotics. For the smaller scale manufacturing facility, where robots were traditionally too expensive and/or too rigid to add value, Rethink Robotics has brought to market a viable approach to implementing robotics as part of the manufacturing process. As the market for robotics continues to grow, expect to see an influx of competitors with devices built for robot/human collaboration, but for now Rethink Robotics certainly has a leading edge advantage.