Rethink Robotics Inc., a pioneer in collaborative robots, closed its doors yesterday. The Boston-based company had received a lot of attention for its Baxter and Sawyer robots, but it had apparently struggled with sales. Rethink Robotics’ groundbreaking products and demise reflect the promise and challenges of robotics startups.
Cobots are smaller, lighter, and slower than conventional industrial robots, making them safer to operate alongside humans and without safety cages. However, as several speakers at last week’s RoboBusiness 2018 conference in Silicon Valley noted, safety assessments are still necessary to determine if the workspace, end effectors, and payload are safe.
Part of the appeal of cobots is that they are supposedly easier to program and use than other robots, which is expected to encourage adoption of automation among small and midsize enterprises. Since they don’t require much fixed infrastructure, cobots can be repurposed or even moved for small-batch, high-variability functions in manufacturing, machine tending, and packaging.
Collaborative robotics is still a relatively small portion of the overall industrial automation market, but it is growing fast. The market for collaborative robots is experiencing a 56.84% compound annual growth rate and could reach $4.28 billion by 2023, according to Markets and Markets and the Robotics Industry Association (RIA).
Traditional robotics providers initially scoffed at cobots, but ABB, FANUC, KUKA, and Yaskawa have all released collaborative models of their own. The leader in this space is Odense, Denmark-based Universal Robots A/S, which has more than 50% market share and last month announced the sale of its 25,000th robot.
Recalling Rethink Robotics
Rethink Robotics founder and Chief Technology Officer Rodney Brooks has been a prominent advocate of robotics. Brooks was co-founder of iRobot, whose Roomba vacuum cleaner is arguably the one robot that’s a household name.
Rethink was founded in 2012, and its distinctive red Baxter and Sawyer robots were poster children for cobots. A noteworthy design feature was the touchscreen interface, which often showed expressive eyes but could also display functional data and a user interface.
The two-armed Baxter was largely used as a research platform for developers and research institutions. With the one-armed Sawyer, which debuted in 2015, Rethink Robotics had tried to position itself as more of a provider for industrial uses.
When end-effector and gripper providers released vendor-neutral interfaces, they commonly cited Rethink Robotics as among the companies whose arms they could work with.
“We have to be thankful to Rethink for generating a lot of awareness and excitement around collaborative robots,” said Samuel Bouchard, president of Quebec-based gripper maker Robotiq. “Without their bold vision and PR impact, the industry would not be where it is today.”
“Unfortunately, sometimes being a pioneer comes with added risk,” said John Santagate, research director, service robots, at IDC. “This is a great example of how an early entrant into a market can drive awareness but not succeed due to several factors, the most significant I believe being the point of others taking lessons learned from what Rethink has done and improving upon it and doing so with greater resources.”
“The closure of Rethink Robotics is unfortunate and upsetting news to hear,” said Lael Odhner, co-founder of RightHand Robotics. “They redefined industrial robots as polished, worker-friendly appliances and have tremendously influenced us at RightHand Robotics. Rethink foresaw a customer need that is now undeniable, and we owe them a debt for convincing people that they could deploy robots anywhere — not just assembly lines.”
Waiting for a buyout
Like many robotics startups, Rethink Robotics had hoped to be purchased, but the acquisition didn’t happen.
“We thought that we had a deal that we were going to be able to close,” said Rethink Robotics CEO Scott Eckert, reported The Boston Globe, which added that the company had 91 employees.
“I am sure there are many great robotics and business learnings that the Rethink people will disseminate as they move to their next ventures,” observed Bouchard.
Other recent robotics failures include social robot makers Jibo Inc. and Mayfield Robotics. As with any new technology, startups face numerous challenges in successful commercialization.
No matter how innovative their products are, robotics startups need a strong understanding of the needs of their target markets and a business plan that can scale to meet them, said RoboBusiness panelists.
“Like startups in all sectors, not everything goes smoothly,” stated Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation (A3) and the RIA and a RoboBusiness speaker. “Sometimes early products aren’t exactly as good as you would like, sometimes new ideas don’t receive immediate market acceptance, and sometimes other market players gain traction sooner. Some or all of these factors may have impacted Rethink.”
“But in no way does this slow the development or current user excitement about collaborative robots. We see strong and growing demand for information on this segment of the market,” he said. “And, while Rethink sadly exits the market, dozens of other companies from around the world are entering the collaborative robot market.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated with comments from industry experts.