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


Designing for SMBs
Industrial robotics manufacturers are aware of their own sector dependence, as well as the size of the market represented by small-to-medium businesses. Academics, often working with governmental agencies, are also interested in the market, particularly as a means to increase international competitiveness and promote job growth (Europe’s SMErobot Initiative provides one example).  Taken together, these groups have come to a rough consensus as to the features and functionality of robotic automation technology optimized for SMBs (again, particularly manufacturing).  These include systems that:

Small-to-medium manufacturers have largely missed out of the benefits of robotic industrial automation, despite the fact that the market for robotics installations into small-to-medium-businesses exceeds that for large enterprises.
  • Satisfy the requirements and support the culture of SMB manufacturers
  • Support manufacturing that makes no assumptions as to volume levels or even types of products
  • Support multiple types of automation tasks
  • Are lightweight, portable and offer a small footprint
  • Come in at a low purchase price and dramatically reduced life-cycle costs
  • Offer high reliability and easy maintenance
  • Provide quantifiable cost justification and short payback
  • Allow for rapid deployment and integration
  • Work safely and effectively in workspaces occupied by humans
  • Can be programmed easily and quickly
  • Can be operated by a workforce with a wide range of education and qualification levels
  • Have multiple options for purchase financing and robot use (rentals, for example)

Mixed Results
Efforts have been made to develop robotics systems suitable for SMBs, but the results have been mixed.  Many academic efforts have resulted in prototypes, but

commercial systems are lacking.  Producers of industrial robots have reworked current models, reducing system size and cost.  But the repurposed, smaller versions of existing systems often do not meet the requirements of SMBs or mesh with their cultures.  Systems remain a challenge to program, requiring engineering expertise and the use of PCs and teach pendants, hand-held robot control terminals that provide a means to move the robot, teach locations and run programs.

Even with reduced purchase pricing, the total cost of ownership for industrial robots is simply beyond the means of many SMBs.  The capitol costs for the robots themselves account for only 25%-30% of the total system costs.  The remaining costs are associated with robot programming, setup, and dedicated, shielded work cells.  The relative impact of these costs is exacerbated for companies requiring constantly changing, small batch production runs, exactly the type of manufacturing required by the majority of SMBs.

What small-to-medium manufacturers require are industrial robots that are specifically tailored to the SMB market.  The systems should be low cost, simple to set up and reconfigure, programmable by non-technologists and able to work safely without a dedicated space or specialized equipment.  Enter Baxter.

A New Class of Automation Technology
It would be a disservice to describe Baxter simply as an industrial robot, even as one engineered particularly for SMBs.  Industrial partner robot might be a more apt term.  This is more than a semantic distinction.  Rethink believes, and I would agree, that Baxter is a new, even radically new, class of automation technology, and one that does not compete directly with traditional industrial robots, but instead acts as a complement.  Baxter will be used in a wholly new ways and will greatly expand the types of manufacturing tasks that can be automated.

Rethink Robotics representatives describe Baxter’s target market as small-to-medium manufacturers, although larger manufacturers are free to employ the system.  This alone does not qualify Baxter as a new category.  However, a number of other factors, taken together, does:

  • Out of the Box Usability – Baxter is made to be used right out of the box. That is, there are no additional charges or requirements for camera systems, safety equipment and the like.  Also, the system can be set up and put into production very quickly.
  • Programming Ease – Baxter can be used without programming in the normal sense.  The system is preprogrammed to perform certain tasks, and then the robot can be trained further to perform work much in the way a human worker would be trained.  For example, Baxter’s arms can be physically positioned and objects recognized and grasped to simulate a task.  Once a sequence of such actions are entered and confirmed by the robot (with a nod of the robot’s head), Baxter is free to work.
    For more complicated tasks, Rethink also supplies an SDK providing access to all system functions.  This manner of floor-to-ceiling programmatic access, where functionality is highly abstracted, but can also be accessed at a very low level, allows Baxter to be programmed easily, but yet places no limits on the types of programs that can be developed.  This in itself provides a type of investment protection.
  • Low Cost – As fitting for the SBM market, Baxter is relatively low cost, coming in at a list price of $22K.  Rethink does offer a parallel gripper for $1,200, as well as a vacuum cup system.  An optional pedestal including casters is also available.  A complete, fully functional, dual arm Baxter system with pedestal and gripper can be had for approximately $27K.  This price compares favorably with even traditional single arm systems (cameras, sensors, grippers etc. must be purchased separately).
    Baxter comes with a 1 year warranty, and a 3 year extension is available.  Software upgrades are offered for one year at no cost.  A software subscription service is under consideration, but no decision has been made at launch time.  Rethink representatives have noted that they intend to continue drive down costs and are also willing to work with 3rd parties to provide additional Baxter compliant accessories.
  • Safe Operation – Rethink’s system has been engineered to work safely in close proximity to human workers, and does not require safety cages or other specialized equipment.  Baxter boasts of compliant joints and fully backdrivable motors in the arms.  Onboard sensors monitor for human proximately and collisions, with the robot adjusting its actions as necessary (ex. slowing down, stopping etc.).
  • Adaptive, Flexible Automation – Rethink’s Baxter is designed as a flexible automation platform that can be repurposed quickly and easily to suit needs.  This aligns with the requirements of SMB manufacturers, as well as the latest manufacturing methodologies such as Adaptive or Agile Manufacturing, where production runs change constantly and production volumes vary widely.
    This approach contrasts sharply with many classes of industrial robots that are purchased and used task specifically (painting robots, for example).  In other cases, generic industrial arms must be augmented with sensing systems, complex programming and specialized workspaces limiting their applicability to a narrow set fixed manufacturing tasks.
  • Extensible Platform – Rethink describes Baxter as an extensible platform.  In this case extensibility takes on two aspects.  First, and more traditionally, the robot can be purposed to a wide variety of tasks (see Horizontal and Vertical Markets, below).  As noted previously, the system can also be used for certain classes of manufacturing processes immediately with minimal robot training.  The available SDK allows for programming more complex tasks.  These are examples of technical extensibility.
    “Extensible” can also describe Rethink’s business model, which in many ways is atypical of a producer of industrial robots, and more in keeping with makers of personal computers (according to Rethink representatives), and even developers of software for mobile devices (my own opinion).

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