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Thinking Twice On Rethink Robotics
Dan Kara reports on what's in the works as Heartland "rethinks" its name, lands an additional $30M (downloadable PDF included)
By Dan Kara


Fittingly situated among the pioneer businesses in Boston’s burgeoning Innovation District, Rethink Robotics (formerly Heartland) has undergone a highly publicized re-branding while remaining tight-lipped about its revolutionary product. Our expert analyst Dan Kara sheds light on the remarkable company’s intentions as he re-examines Rethink Robotics at this pivotal point in its development.

On June 19th, 2012, Boston based Heartland Robotics simultaneously released two noteworthy press releases.  Both communications were very straight forward.  The first press release announced that Heartland Robotics had changed its name to Rethink Robotics.  The second reported that the company had secured and additional $30M in series C funding.

Answering the ‘so what’ question?

The announcements received a great deal of coverage in the robotics, business and manufacturing press, as well as in the local Boston-area media.  Unfortunately, all were a reiteration of the press releases (here, here and here for examples).  More to the point, no one answered the “so what” question citing a lack of details.  That’s unfortunate, and will be rectified here.

While Rethink has been less than forthcoming regarding their business and product plans, it is possible to construct a description of those plans from a variety of confluent inputs including company announcements and new hires, investment and industry news, as well as political and social trends.  This exercise will also provide insights into unfolding trends in the industrial robotics market, as well as opportunities in that market sector.  The characterization will be broken down as follows:

  • What is Rethink developing?
  • How did the company get to this point?
  • What does the name change and additional funding mean?
  • What is the competitive landscape?

At first blush

In 2009, following a $7M Series A1 equity funding round, I postulated as to Heartland/Rethink’s product plans in a Robotics Business Review analysis piece entitled “Heartland Robotics: Hiding in Plain Sight”($).  As the title suggests, I believed that despite Heartland’s reticency, quite a bit of information regarding the company could be gleaned through a careful examination of public information. I concluded:

“The company is developing human-scale, highly dexterous and versatile industrial robots targeted to small to midsize manufacturers, which can work in close association with people safely and efficiently. The robots will exploit the increasing power of hardware and system software to deliver new levels of performance and human interactivity, greatly expanding the number and types of manufacturing processes that can be automated. This class of robots has the potential to revolutionize manufacturing.”


In the piece I went further to provide details as to what I believed was truly transformative technology, a new class of industrial robots specifically designed to perform materials handling, manipulation and assembly-related duties that formally required two hands operating in a highly coordinated fashion.  Historically, these tasks have been restricted to humans.  The system(s) I described were:

  • Primarily targeted to small to midsize manufacturers

  • Designed to automate complex, often highly detailed manual manufacturing processes

  • Available at a low purchase price and requiring only minimal lifecycle costs

  • Easy to set up and program

  • Capable of being used by workers with a wide range of qualification levels

  • Able to support multiple types of automation

  • Offers a small footprint and is human-scale in size

  • Works collaboratively and in close proximity to human workers

  • Provide fine motor control and supporting dexterous manipulation

  • Employ machine vision, along with force, touch, position, and tactile sensors

  • Boast of multiple arms and possibly a humanoid form factor

  • Quick to reconfigure, so as to support quickly changing, low production volumes


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    About the author

    Casey Nobile is the lead editor for Robotics Business Review’s RBR50 news, editorial and business segment. She is also contributing writer and editor for the publication’s News & Technology columns with special emphasis on breaking news coverage for science, technology and financial transactions. Casey is also editor and contributor for other in-house publications: Robotics Trends; RoboBusiness and RoboBusiness exhibit services.

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