Rethink Robotics: Unpacked! - Robotics Business Review
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Rethink Robotics: Unpacked!
How Baxter will revolutionize manufacturing and what it means for workers and business owners alike
By Dan Kara

This is a big deal.  After $62M in investment and a commercial development effort extending back to 2008 (earlier if academic research work is also considered), on September 18th Rethink Robotics announced its first product offering, a new class of robotics technology designed primarily for small-to-medium manufacturers. 

The Kara Report

The robotics and automation community had not witnessed this level of breathless anticipation for a new product since the release of the Segway Personal Transporter in 2001.  The excitement was not limited to the robotics community only.  Investors, business development groups, government officials and others were keenly interested in what Rethink released.  For me personally, the Rethink announcement was the equivalent of Apple’s initial iPhone and iPad releases, with LeBron James’ “The Decision” thrown in for good measure.

Over the years the high level of interest in Rethink Robotics has resulted in a great deal of coverage in robotics and business media outlets.  I was not immune to the enthusiasm, and in a June 2012 Robotics Business Review article I speculated as to Rethink’s product plans.  In the large I was correct, but big picture analysis is easy.

The details of the Rethink announcement reveal a unique technology and a compelling business model, which is expected to revolutionize manufacturing, and, I believe, have substantial social and political ramifications. Therefore, for this article a technical specs review and brief product description alone simply will not suffice (you can find that aplenty on the Web, along with reviews of the company’s experienced management team).  For roboticists, the investment community and manufacturers, it is important to understand Rethink’s product and business plans, but also the wider industrial robotics sector and the social and political consequences of this unique product launch.  That is what is attempted here.

Baxter in Brief
Rethink has announced the availability beginning October 1st of Baxter, a low cost, dual armed humanoid robot primarily targeted to small-to-medium manufacturers.  Each of Baxter’s 7-degree-of-freedom (DoF) arms provide a rated payload of 5 lbs.  The human scale robot will come loaded with a variety of sensors out of the box, including vision, touch, force and position.  Baxter, which can be set up and reconfigured quickly and easily, is designed to work collaboratively and safely with humans.  In addition, Baxter can be programmed by non-technologists.

The thumbnail description above is accurate as far as it goes, but it does not do justice to the scope of Rethink’s vision or what the release means in the larger sense.  That requires, as a first step, an understanding of the genesis of the Baxter system, including some insights into the industrial robotics market sector.

SMB Manufacturers a Missed Opportunity
Traditional industrial robots have been successful in manufacturing because they could quickly, repeatedly and tirelessly perform a task such as welding and painting, often under extreme conditions.  The benefits of such automation are many including:

  • Increased product quality
  • Improved capacity utilization
  • Improved labor efficiency
  • Improved worker safety (frees workers from performing tasks hazardous to their health)

For the most part, the industrial robotics sector, which reached maturity over the second half of the last century, consists of immobile, single task robots that have little interaction with humans or the world around them as they perform their simple, repetitive tasks while encaged within a safety barrier of some type.  Not only are the robots themselves dangerous, they usually perform hazardous or unhealthy tasks.

Automotive and electronics manufacturing account for the overwhelming majority of industrial robotics installations.  Even when robots made inroads into other markets, say, the pharmaceutical industry, they were purchased by large enterprises that could afford sizable amounts of capital investment and had large production volume requirements.

Small-to-medium businesses (SMBs) lack sufficient funds for expensive robotic installations.  They require low volume, flexible automation solutions that can easily be changed to meet shifting demand.  In addition, many SMBs do not have the personnel available with a deep understanding of how robots operate or how to program and maintain them, nor can they afford to outsource or use robotics consultants for an extended period of time.  As a result, small-to-medium manufacturers have largely missed out on the benefits of robotic industrial automation described above, despite the fact that the market for robotics installations into small-to-medium-businesses exceeds that for large enterprises.

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