Boston-based Rethink Robotics, which made the Baxter and Sawyer collaborative robots or cobots, shut down on Oct. 3. The Robot Report, sibling site to Collaborative Robotics Trends, first reported the story, confirming the news with former Rethink CEO Scott Eckert. Former iRobot co-founder Rodney Brooks and Ann Whitaker founded the company in 2008. Rethink had raised a total of $149.5 million in funding through August 2017.
“I can confirm that unfortunately the news is true, Rethink Robotics closed its doors today,” Eckert said in an e-mail to The Robot Report. “We were pioneers and innovators in the industry and responsible for the creation of the collaborative robot category, but unfortunately we didn’t quite achieve the market success we had intended. We have been helping our team find new homes and have been overwhelmed with interest. It’s a world-class group of people who will continue to do great things in their next endeavors.”
Eckert said a deal to have Rethink acquired fell through at the last minute. The company was short on cash as its sales failed to meet expectations. On Oct. 25, however, German automation specialist HAHN Group acquired Rethink’s IP.
HAHN Group said will further develop Rethink’s technology, “combining it with German engineering and know-how of industrial applications.” HAHN Robotics, the integration unit of the HAHN Group, already has Sawyer listed as a product on its website, adding that it is the “exclusive distributor” for the cobot. The HAHN Group news has no impact on Baxter.
Formerly known as Heartland Robotics, the company produced some of the first cobots on the market. The two-armed Baxter, introduced in 2012, and one-armed Sawyer, introduced in 2015, were known for their animated faces, red exteriors, and ease of programming.
But according to a dozen former Rethink distributors and integrators we interviewed, Rethink’s robots were not known for their precision and ability to perform as advertised in industrial environments. Some of those former partners were willing to share their thoughts about what transpired in hopes that others do not make the same mistakes.
Rethink Robotics off to a promising start
The Baxter robot was introduced to media outlets in late 2012. Brooks, a celebrity in the robotics world, was featured in 60 Minutes, The New York Times, and other prominent outlets promoting how cobots could work safely around humans and help revamp manufacturing in the US. CEOs of manufacturing companies immediately fell in love with the concept. By June 2012, before it ever sold a single robot, Rethink had raised $62 million.
“I’ve never seen a product get so much publicity,” said Dan O’Brien, owner of Norwood, Mass.-based Gibson Engineering, a distributor and integrator that signed on early with Rethink and stuck with them until the very end. “I fell in love with Rethink in 2010.”
West Goshen, Penn.-based ONExia, founded in 1984, was the first regional distributor signed by Rethink and the first to sell a Baxter robot. CEO Greg Selke said that Rethink came out of the gate with the right hopes.
“Rethink was keying in on the safety aspect. Up till that time, robots were dangerous,” he said. “The idea was to make something safe and friendly, and they did that.”
Numatic Engineering, a Sun Valley, Calif.-based integrator founded in 1955, signed on with Rethink in 2013. Numatic president Steve Leach said it initially hoped Rethink would revolutionize the industry. “Rethink was the buzz, and we had hopes their robot was going to be the iPhone of the industrial automation world.”
The hype was there. The demand was there. And the concept of robots and humans working together collaboratively was there. So where did things go wrong?
Series elastic actuators limited performance
Baxter and Sawyer both used series elastic actuators (SEAs) in their joints. Rethink licensed the technology from MIT. In a typical actuator, a motor drives a gearbox that turns a joint in a robot arm. Those three elements create rigidity, which can lead to speed and precision.
When Baxter was introduced, the SEAs were described as follows: “In SEAs, the motor and gearbox drive a spring, and it’s the spring that drives the joint. The spring makes the actuator elastic.”
According to all of the sources The Robot Report spoke to, the SEAs were a major reason Baxter and Sawyer were less precise.
“The SEAs introduce substantial flexibility in the joints of the robot. That is good for safety, but bad for precision and motion performance,” said Ilian Bonev, co-founder of Mecademic, professor at École de technologie supérieure and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Precision Robotics. “It is extremely difficult to control a flexible manipulator, especially when trying to minimize cycle times. Thus, Rethink probably spent too much effort trying to fix hardware problems through software.”
By using SEAs, Rethink compromised accuracy and repeatability in favor of safety.
“Rethink keyed in on the series elastic actuator,” said Selke. “They thought safety was going to be key to the market. Safety was important for Baxter and Sawyer, of course, but the robots still had to be able to function.”
“Most industrial robots sound like high-quality mechanisms,” said O’Brien. “But because of the spring-like SEAs, the robots became noise-makers. You took them into a lab and demoed them, and they sounded like a poor mechanism. Even the audible sounds from the robot made people think the robots were not a good mechanism.”
After setting up demos for potential clients, Leach said questions constantly arose about repeatability.
“Baxter wasn’t accurate or smooth,” said Leach. “After customers watched the demo, they lost interest because Baxter was not able to meet their needs. We signed on early, a month before Baxter was released, and thought the software and mechanics would be refined. But they were not.”
Rethink Robotics did not respond to queries about the SEAs leading to performance problems.
Customer needs unfulfilled
It is unclear exactly how many robots Rethink sold, butthe company said in September 2015 that it had “recently passed the 1,000 sales mark.” Most of those were “in the U.S., and a good portion were [sold] to academia.”
For comparison, Universal Robots, which was founded in 2005, had sold more than 8,000 cobots by the end of 2015. Universal Robots sold more than 3,000 cobots in 2015 alone.
Leach said in the first 12 months as a Rethink distributor, Numatic was unable to sell a single robot. Numatic eventually signed on as a UR distributor. Leach said his company sold one UR robot in the first week and 18 in the first year. Numatic expects to have sold more than 300 cobots by the end of 2018.
“From the ground up, UR’s firmware and hardware were specifically developed for industrial applications and met the expectations of those customers,” said Leach. “That’s really where Rethink missed the mark. While there was an amazing amount of interest, Baxter’s mechanical motion and firmware simply didn’t meet the needs of industrial robot users.”
Other sources said they believe Rethink targeted the wrong market with Baxter. Monroe Good, director of global business development at Corun USA, has the exclusive rights to the 100 remaining Baxter robots in the world. He said he never tried to sell Baxter to a manufacturer.
“I pushed Baxter to people where it fit and pushed people away from it where it didn’t fit,” Good said. “I don’t want someone I sold something to calling me later and saying the product is no good.”
“Rethink’s robots were not built to solve a specific problem,” said Bruce Welty, founder of Locus Robotics. “[Baxter] was a roboticist’s robot, not a tool for a job.”
Although it had much in common with Baxter, Sawyer was supposed to be different. Sawyer incorporated best-in-class technologies for motion control and machine vision, as well new proprietary technologies from Rethink itself. It was also smaller, lighter, and had a higher load capacity.
But sources told The Robot Report that Sawyer was more of the same, just with one less arm and a smaller footprint. Rethink never quite caught up to its press, they said.
“We doubled down when Sawyer came out,” said one person, who declined to be identified. “We thought Sawyer was heading in the right direction, but Rethink would talk about features as if they were hard-baked into Sawyer. Then when you tried to implement them, they only worked in a very narrow range of applications. We also had quality issues with Sawyer. It wasn’t smooth sailing for Sawyer either.”
Baxter leaves void in academic world
While Baxter was not well-suited for industrial users, the consensus is it was the ideal solution for universities.
“If you’re a university and want to teach people how to program a robot or access other people’s studies, then Baxter is the optimal robot,” said Good.
“Everyone in robotics research today either has a Baxter or has a friend with a Baxter,” said Brown University roboticist Stefanie Tellex. “In terms of penetration, it’s the closest thing we’ve had to a common platform for manipulation across different research labs.”
“Rethink had an innovative product. Schools and universities were good targets for Baxter,” said Leach. “If Sawyer was what Rethink introduced from the beginning, Rethink might have been OK.”
“This is very sad news and detrimental for education and training the future generation of roboticists,” said Ruzena Bajcsy, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley. “I use them in my course [with 150 students] every week [in] lab sessions.”
Health of cobot market
Many are wondering if the demise of Rethink means the collaborative robotics market is slowing. But the answer is the exact opposite. Small to medium-sized manufacturers are yearning for cobots to help them boost productivity.
Rethink was not up for the task, but many other cobot companies are. Cobots currently account for only 3% of all robot sales, according to the International Federation of Robotics. But cobots are forecast to have a 34% share by 2025 when global spending on robotics is estimated to hit $13 billion.
Universal Robots, which recently rang the closing bell of the New York Stock Exchange, sold its 25,000 cobot in September 2018. The Danish company claimed to have a 60% share of the market, but that will be difficult to maintain as new cobot suppliers continue to emerge. Many of these new players are Chinese and Taiwanese vendors that spun out of well-established industrial robot companies.
Another to watch is Kassow Robots, which launched at Automatica 2018 under the leadership of Kristian Kassow, former co-founder of Universal Robots.
Cobots have been and will continue to be a great way to help human workers grow accustomed to automation. While more competition means more companies will ultimately suffer the same fate as Rethink, the industry as a whole will continue to excel.
“In no way does [Rethink shutting down] slow the development or current user excitement about collaborative robots. We see a strong and growing demand for information on this segment of the market,” said Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation (A3). “While Rethink sadly exits the market, dozens of other companies from around the world are entering the collaborative robot market.”
“This interest in collaborative robots is fueling global interest in robotics, especially among small and medium-sized companies,” he said. “We wish the entire Rethink team the best of luck finding new positions in the industry and thank them for all they’ve done to revolutionize the robotics industry.”