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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


 

Much in a Name

Human faces as a means of communication have been proven in the field for over 200,000 years, millions of years if prehumans are considered.

The most striking difference between Baxter and the majority of industrial robots on the market is its humanoid form factor.  The robot has a distinct torso sporting two arms, and a separate head with a LCD graphical face including two eyes.  Baxter is proportionally similar to a human, and is roughly the height of a human male, standing 6’ 1” (1.8M) when the optional pedestal is employed (the torso alone is 3’ 1” - 94 cm).

Rethink named its robot “Baxter”, a telling departure from the usual naming conventions for industrial robotics products.  Consider KUKA’s KR 1000 ‘Titan’, FANUC Robotics’ M-430iA, Adept’s Quattro s650 and Motoman’s SDA10 (also duel armed).  These names are by no means unusual for industrial robots that as a rule sound impersonal, industrial (naturally) and slightly aggressive.

As a given name, Baxter, meaning “baker” in the original Anglo-Saxon, is nonthreatening, and connotes humor and even playfulness.  I have no idea how “Baxter” translates cross culturally, but I suspect that once on the job Baxter will be referred to by any number of personal names including the folksy “Bax”.  It is clear that Rethink was purposeful in their selection of the name Baxter.  They were making a point and it is well taken.

Conveying Intent
Rethink rightly understands that as an interface, it is difficult to improve upon the human face.  After all, human faces as a means of communication have been proven in the field for over 200,000 years, millions of years if prehumans are considered.  Developing a set of control icons that has the same universal, cross cultural appeal and understandability of a human face is a difficult, if not impossible, task.

Like a human, Baxter has many ways of conveying intent.  Cues provided by the robot are relatively natural and no additional knowledge is required to use the robot as tasks and interactions are altered.  For example, Baxter informs co-workers what it is about to do by looking in the direction where it will move its arm next.  If a worker comes close to Baxter, the robot’s face exhibits a concerned expression.  Using facial expressions Baxter can also inform you if it is confused or not working.  Baxter’s interface is as simple, and as profound, as that.

Human Class, Human Scale, Human Pace
Baxter is humanoid in more than just its physical appearance.  The system was designed to work at a pace and perform tasks in approximately the same way a human would.

Processes requiring extremely rapid movement or exceedingly precise manipulation and placement are not Baxter’s forte.  The same holds for hazardous or destructive tasks.  These same undertakings cannot be accomplished by a human, nor can they be take place in close proximity with humans (and never without safety gear).  Traditional industrial robots can perform these tasks, and it is for this reason that Rethink describes Baxter as a complement, and not a competitor, to traditional industrial robots.

Most industrial robotics systems automate the three D tasks – Dirty, Dull and Dangerous – with an emphasis on dirty and dangerous.  By comparison, Rethink has optimized Baxter for automating the dull, those non-value add, repetitive tasks performed by humans in SMB manufacturing environments across the world. With Baxter, Rethink is conceding a good portion of the industrial manufacturing market to traditional industrial automation systems.  It makes sense for Rethink to avoid direct competition with sizable, entrenched robotics companies.  It could also be the simple matter of the company specifically targeting a much larger, underserved market.  The reality, of course, is that both statements are true.

As a new market entrant, Rethink’s positioning is not unique in the least.  What is unique is their contention that Baxter best serves SMB manufacturers when performing human class, human scale tasks in a human friendly environment.  Baxter’s value proposition is that the robot can perform the tasks, allowing humans to focus on tasks that add greater value to the overall manufacturing process.  Moreover, and here’s the kicker, if the robot goes offline for any reason, it can be replaced by a human, with no loss of production run downtime.

Political and Social Drivers
Virtually all of the major robotics producers are based outside of the US.  Rethink notes that Baxter is designed in Boston and that approximately 70% of the value added sourcing occurs in the US.  Final assembly takes place in New Hampshire.  Rethink believes that this will resonate with manufactures in North America.  While the company still has to makes it business case, they believe that Made in the USA can be a tie breaker in close competitive sales situations.  Given today’s political and economic climate, they are most certainly correct.

More Than a Product Release
In an earlier article I speculated that Rethink’s product, when released, would be viewed as revolutionary and that the company would secure first-to-market benefits.  With the Baxter announcement, it appears that these expectations are now confirmed.

Rethink Robotics’ much ballyhooed Baxter announcement is no point release or run-of-the-mill product launch.  With the release of Baxter, the company is not offering a better industrial robot.  Instead, the company has engineered a new category of manufacturing technology, an industrial partner robot, which is optimized for human scale, human paced manufacturing at small-to-medium companies.  In doing so, Rethink Robotics will greatly expand the number and types of manufacturing tasks that can be automated.  Indeed, the system will create wholly new classes of processes suitable for automation. Now that’s revolutionary.

Dan Kara is analyst-at-large for Robotics Business Review.  He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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