March 19, 2015      

Rethink Robotics Inc.‘s popular Baxter is getting a smaller, more agile brother.

“Like Baxter, we went back to names of trades from back in the day for ‘Sawyer,'” said Jim Lawton, chief marketing officer at Rethink. “Sawyer is lighter, has a longer arm, and offers more payload. It also includes mechanical compliance and has force sensing so that it’s safe for collaborative work and doesn’t need a cage.”

“With Baxter, we introduced the concept of robots and people working together on the plant floor,” said Rethink Robotics President and CEO Scott Eckert in a press release. “With Sawyer, we have taken that relationship to the next level, with a high-performance robot that opens the door for many new applications that have never been good candidates for automation.”

While the reasonably priced Baxter was popular among research institutions and small and midsize businesses (SMBs), Rethink envisions a much bigger market for Sawyer.

Baxter was good for case packing and materials transfer, but Sawyer is faster and globally certified to comply with international regulations,” Lawton told Robotics Business Review. “It was designed upfront for manufacturing tasks such as machine tending, welding, and circuit board testing and programming.”

“Manufacturing is desperate for collaborative robots,” Lawton continued. “China has benefited from low-cost labor, but there’s now 25% to 40% turnover. After the Chinese New Year, one manufacturer said that 60% of its workers didn’t come back.” Apparently, competitors are poaching employees at bus stops, he said.

“So even Chinese manufacturers need to adopt more automation,” he said. “One study said that less than 10% of the tasks that could be automated have been automated, such as 40% of routine tasks like machine tending. Sawyer would be perfect for that.”

Sawyer is stronger, faster, and more durable than Baxter
Boston-based Rethink listened to critiques of Baxter, which won a Game Changer Award at 2014 RoboBusiness but is limited in its functionality. Baxter is good for assembling boxes, but Sawyer’s speed, precision, and seven degrees of freedom make it good for tasks such as a CNC [computer numerical control] lathes, said Lawton.

Meet Sawyer, Baxter's little brother

Sawyer is ready to work alongside humans.

Sawyer is intended to both occupy a smaller footprint and be stronger than its sibling. “It has a different form factor — more compact at 2 by 2 by 5 feet,” explained Lawton. “Sawyer has a single arm, weighs 42 lb., and has a heavier payload [of 8.8 lb]. If Baxter is the linebacker, Sawyer is the running back.”

Sawyer retains the red and black color scheme of Baxter, as well as the familiar “face” screen. Under the hood, the same brain serves both Baxter and Sawyer. “It executes with positive feedback, using the same Intera software,” Lawton said. “In addition to a camera in its ‘head,’ Sawyer has a Cognex camera in its wrist. The end effector was occluded in Baxter.”

The camera is paired with a light source built into Sawyer’s wrist, and it could eventually support additional features such as bar-code scanning and object recognition. Rethink’s Robot Positioning System provides for easy realignment, according to the company.

Like Baxter, Sawyer’s force-sensing capabilities and its ability to learn by working with humans make it useful in environments beyond the production line. “It has a greater reach and can work in spaces designed for humans,” Lawton said.

“Sawyer is good for inserting circuit testers. With its actuators, the co-robot can feel its way into fixtures,” Lawton explained. “Unlike Baxter, Sawyer is rated IP 54, so it can withstand moisture, grease, and particulates, which is key for industrial applications.”

“Sawyer incorporates advanced technology from the Baxter platform but is different in other fundamental aspects, making it suitable for wholly new classes of applications,” said Dan Kara, robotics practice director at ABB Research.

What Does Baxter Do Best?

According to Rethink Robotics’ Jim Lawton, the following characters make Sawyer stand head and shoulder above the competition:

1. It’s good at environments that change. “The robot positioning system coordinates frames, making it good at varied, unstructured environments,” said Lawton.

2. It’s good at shifting from task to task. “You could have it do one thing one day, and then show it how to do something else the next day,” he says.

3. Motion control, involving mechanical compliance and impedance controls, make it behave more like a human. “You don’t need to shift everything in the environment for the robot,” said Lawton.

Repetitive tasks such as pharmaceutical testing might also be a good fit for Sawyer, although very high-precision work might be better done by other robots, said Lawton.

Rethink is finishing field testing with major manufacturers in North America, Western Europe, China, and Japan.

“We?ve gone from curiosity about co-robots to interest, and now organizations feel they need them,” said Lawton. “Rethink has to figure out how to scale to large numbers, because we think the number of co-robots will dwarf the number of existing robots deployed.”

“Flexible automation that addresses shrinking product lifecycles and helps companies align with consumer trends is a critical technology initiative for manufacturers,” said John Dulchinos, vice president of digital manufacturing at St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Jabil Circuit Inc., in the press release.

Sawyer pricing, market prospects
The market for Baxter has been 330,000 among SMBs, but Lawton is bullish on the prospects for Sawyer. “We could see 10 times that market as automation moves from SMBs to do large-volume, easily configurable tasks, such as testers. We have a much bigger market opportunity, with potentially tens of thousands of units.”

The manufacturer’s suggested retail price for the Sawyer is $29,000, which is comparable to $25,000 for the Baxter. Rethink Robotics expects to start shipping the robot later this summer, but Lawton warned of limited availability. “We’ve already gotten many orders, and we’ll have more production by January of next year,” he said.

Rethink Robotics will be selling Sawyer through a combination of its direct sales channel and third-party distributors, which are already serving the U.S. and Europe. “We’ll have a similar hybrid plan as we work with partners in Japan and China,” said Lawton.