Rethink Robotics Closes its Doors

Back in 2016, IEN’s David Mantey reported on what he called “the future of collaborative robots” – a cobot with a sweet face named Sawyer, produced by Boston-based Rethink Robotics.

And, as usual, David was wrong. Really wrong.

Because last week Rethink Robotics closed its doors, which ultimately means the end of Sawyer and his predecessor Baxter. Here’s what happened:

Rethink, co-founded by Sydney Brooks, the automation mind behind the Roomba vacuum cleaner, was a pioneer with its initial cobots, designed to work alongside humans and feature safety systems that made doing so not dangerous. The collaborative robots would stop when they encountered any sort of human impediment, and training them was as easy as guiding Sawyer or Baxter’s arm in accordance with the task you wanted to perform.

But unfortunately for Rethink, they were swimming upstream as a first-to-market innovation in an industry that was still catching up to the idea. The company also told Tech Crunch that they were about to be acquired but the deal fell through at the last minute and the shutdown resulted.

But perhaps more importantly, they had some stiff competition, specifically from Universal Robots, a cobot maker that’s been outselling Rethink with options that tend to be lighter and more modular. Rethink, it seems, tried to address this when it launched Sawyer in 2015, but it might have been too late to find their niche in what already was a bit of a niche market.

But if you ask Universal Robots, that’s changing. With their modularity, light weight, and easy implementation, UR told us at MODEX 2018 that robotics aren’t just for high volume, repetitive motion operations anymore.

Add to this the fact that robot sales are growing at a healthy pace, and it might give Universal Robots more room to succeed without Rethink as a competitor. That said, they will need to keep ABB in their sites because the company has just released a single-arm version of their cobot, Yumi, which adds flexibility and scalability to what the company has dubbed “the world’s first truly collaborative robot.”

As for Rethink, they say that all of their employees are being actively recruited by other tech firms. When Baxter and Sawyer heard the news, they took it in stride, as usual, because there is no crying in robotics.

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