March 03, 2016      

Collaborative robots promise to relieve humans from tedious work and revolutionize advanced manufacturing worldwide. Before they can do that, however, companies need to scale up to meet the demand.

Last month, Rethink Robotics Inc. signed exclusive agreements with Freise Automation GmbH and Hahn Robotics GmbH to distribute Sawyer to manufacturers in Germany.

“Sawyer is really the product we’re using to open new markets and to expand internationally,” said Jim Lawton, chief product and marketing officer at Boston-based Rethink.

“We knew from field tests, working with several manufacturers in different countries with Sawyer,” he told Robotics Business Review. “They provided insight … and fine-tuning with real applications.”

Sawyer has a seven-axis arm and includes a Cognex camera and force-sensing technology, combining 0.1mm precision with the ability to learn in semi-structured environments. It sells for a base price of $29,000.

“There’s interest in cobots from a lot of different industries,” Lawton said. “Particularly in Europe, there’s demand for robots in the automotive sector, which has a track record for automation.”

Experts predict that the market for collaborative robots will grow from $95 million in 2014 to more than $1 billion in 2020 because of their affordability, ease of deployment, usefulness for multiple applications.

Rethink Robotics' Jim Lawton

Rethink’s Sawyer poses with Jim Lawton.

“The advantage of this kind of automation, because [Sawyer] can work alongside people, is that it doesn’t need to be bolted down,” he said. “These robots are designed to be used with people, not in cages, and by non-programmers.”

“In areas like injection molding, counting items and putting them into a bag — that’s not enlightening work, fun, or interesting,” Lawton added. Cobots can free people for more creative tasks, he said.

Germany and Industrie 4.0

“With its Industrie 4.0 initiative, Germany is aggressively pursuing economic growth with manufacturing innovation, investing $1.5 trillion to help drive the growth of smart factories,” said Scott Eckert, president and CEO of Rethink Robotics. “German manufacturers are looking for collaborative robots to help them become more efficient and responsive to customer demand.”

Rethink hasn’t received any funding from the German government, and its new partners will address both regional demand and any regulatory issues.

“There’s no formal connection, but [Industrie 4.0] is part of the increasing awareness,” Lawton said. “Thomas Hahn, CEO of Hahn Automation, had lines out the door and around the corner of people wanting to figure out how robotics and Industrie 4.0 play together.”

“Robots can be big buckets of sensors plus actuators — the Industrial Internet of Things on steroids — and they can learn and change their own processes,” Lawton said. “This is evident in requests from prospective customers in Europe. Others are starting to think of the same thing, how we use cobots. It’s more advanced in Europe, Germany in particular.”

How to find international partners

“We first introduced Baxter in the U.S. to have our customers close to us,” Lawton said. “We wanted to use their feedback for Baxter and the definition of Sawyer, which was always the product we were going to extend globally. It’s a question of sales and support.”

“We wanted to set up distribution in Europe, even in early development of Sawyer,” he said. “We’re fortunate that Rethink’s Baxter and Sawyer are recognized faces, and we’ve always had the experience of companies wanting to partner with us for business and technology — we get a lot of inbound calls.”

“It wasn’t our goal to build a distributor,” Lawton noted. “Ultimately, it doesn’t make sense for us to do what others have already done.”

“We evaluated the market for partners: Which companies have experience in automation and robotics?” Lawton recalled. “We were cognizant of whether that experience would be beneficial or a detriment.”

“Some companies have 20 to 40 years of experience with automation, which in terms of culture could do more harm than good,” he said. “Sawyer is a different kind of robot. We needed openness to a new way of doing things. We prioritized partners based on how this is going to change how robots can be used and in what industries.”

“We needed a strong tech staff, coverage from geography perspective, and longstanding relationships with existing customers,” he said. “Friese Automation and Hahn Robotics are very supportive of them for automation and robotics.”

“The vetting process is like one we would use with selecting suppliers,” he said. “We narrowed it down to these two distributors.”

Freise Automation, which has experience in medical, chemical, printing, and automotive manufacturing, will be the exclusive distributor of Sawyer in northern Germany.

Hahn Robotics will manage the distribution of Sawyer in southern Germany, as well as in Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Turkey.

Hahn Automation, the parent company of Hahn Robotics, provides automation for material handling, assembly and inspection, and research and development.

The process took nine months last year, Lawton said, but articulating the strategy started well before that.

“Once we clarified for ourselves what was most important, the exercise of finding the ideal partners was fairly straightforward, once we found a cultural fit.”

Supporting global sales

“We had orders before the partnerships, particularly from large multinational customers, who have standardized on our robots,” Lawton said. “For instance, we already had a strong presence in the U.S., Europe, and China, and our global sales are about 30 percent in each.”

“We were not selling Baxter in Europe for manufacturing, but research models were selling,” he explained. “We have a brand and reputation in Europe, so much of our focus on collaborative robots for two to five years has gotten people thinking about it.”

“We don’t have to build demand; most people already have a perspective on wanting to get experience with our robots,” Lawton said.

“Europe has an emphasis on Industry 4.0, which is in many ways similar to China’s 2025 initiative,” Lawton said. “It has similar aspects — Europe has been much more progressive — combining cognitive computing with advanced manufacturing and innovation. From an IT perspective, there is a lot that we can do.”

Rethink has been working to meet these needs with its hardware and software.

Rethink recently signed a deal with Cothink Robotics Tech Co. Changsha, China-based Cothink Robotics will distribute Baxter and Sawyer to the Chinese industrial automation market, the largest in the world.

Quality over quantity

Lawton said that Rethink is definitely still open to global partners, especially in Asia. “Having said that, there are other companies that think of signing partners like getting Twitter followers,” he added.

“We’re very focused on small number of strategic partners, such as Sumitomo in Japan, where there’s an appetite to explore cobot technology,” Lawton said. “We’re investing in each partnership, one or two per major region.”

“We’re not interested in a flood of partnerships; we don’t think that serves customers best,” he said.