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Industry shock: Rethink Robotics closes its doors

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US-based Rethink Robotics, the maker of collaborative robots Baxter and Sawyer, has shut its doors.

Co-founded by Australian roboticist Rodney Brooks in 2008, the company had raised nearly $150 million to date, according to Crunchbase.

But The Boston Globe reports the company was struggling with sales and planned to sell the entire operation to another company, however the sale fell through.

In a brief statement the company said it was now trying to find work for its 91 employees.

Rethink’s intellectual property and patent portfolio will be up for sale. Rethink Robotics was based in Boston, Massachusetts.

“We got out a little early with a very, very innovative product, and unfortunately did not get the commercial success that we expected to get,” said CEO Scott Eckert in an interview with the Globe.

Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation, told the Boston Globe that Rethink faced tough competition from Danish robotics company Universal Robots, which also sells collaborative robots.

Pioneers and innovators

“They’ve done a really good job of building out their ecosystem … there’s a lot of these companies who’ve said we want to develop products specifically with Universal,” Burnstein said, according to the Globe.

Brooks and co-founder Ann Whitaker were pioneers and innovators in the industry and were largely responsible for creating and growing the cobot segment of the robotics industry.

In a 2016 interview with GE Reports, Brooks framed cobots as support for, not a replacement for, human workers.

“The robot can’t do everything a person can do – just like an electric drill doesn’t replace a contractor. Robots aren’t dexterous. They can only do certain things, and they’re letting the person do the more cognitive parts.

“We’re undervaluing workers when we say that robots are replacing them. We’re undervaluing an ordinary person’s intelligence.”

Designed to safely interact with human workers

Introduced in 2012 by Rethink Robotics, an industrial robot named Baxter was intended as the robotic analogue of the early personal computer designed to safely interact with neighbouring human workers and be programmable for the performance of simple tasks.

The robot stopped if it encountered a human in the way of its robotic arm and has a prominent off switch which its human partner can push if necessary.

Costs were projected to be the equivalent of a worker making $4 an hour.

The company later launched the Sawyer cobot as well as accessories and a software platform.

The robots use expressive “faces” on screens to interact with human operators and co-workers.

Brooks also co-founded iRobot, the company behind the Roomba vacuum.

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