Going all the way back from the first Unimate installation at General Motors in 1961 through about 2012, the evolution of industrial robotics has taken a steady course toward ever bigger, ever stronger, ever faster production.
This was the age of big metal—giant, expensive machines controlled by elaborate, expensive software that was programmed by brilliant, expensive engineers. They made big manufacturing what it is today: fast, efficient and powerful.
But in 2012, that evolution took a new course.
Collaborative robots—a new breed of automation tools that trade power and speed for simplicity and affordability—shifted the automation paradigm away from big metal and big manufacturing to bring automation to places it had never gone before.
These machines target smaller shops and factories that are brimming with untapped automatable tasks, but where the cost of traditional robots and all their components made them unpractical.
They work side-by-side with workers, without expensive safety guards or complicated programming, learning as they go and fitting in with the crew as new members of the workforce… albeit members that can work 24 hours a day without breaks and without food.
The door to this new era was opened by one robot, Rethink Robotics’ two-armed, friendly-faced Baxter.
When Baxter opened that door, it unleashed cascade of new players to jump in to capitalize on that new market.
In the last three years, there has been a growing swarm of activity everywhere from big machine makers at ABB and Kuka to start-up dominators like Rethink Robotics and Universal Robots, all of them chasing that untapped bounty of small and midsize businesses.
Last month, Rethink Robotics accelerated that race with the release of Baxter’s little brother, Sawyer.
The compact system, running on Rethink Robots’ Intera software system and packed full of sensors, cameras, and safety features, is designed specifically to address the elusive 90% of manufacturing tasks that could otherwise not be feasibly automated with traditional solutions.
If it all works out, the system could finally automate to small workspaces from U.S. to China, putting collaborative robots right alongside humans, making products cheaper and faster than ever.
We recently met up with Rethink Robotics President and CEO Scott Eckert to find out what this machine promises to do for automation and where the new field will take manufacturing next.
Q: Over the last few years, we’ve seen an absolute explosion of interest in collaborative robotics. Even the traditional robot makers are starting to jump in. What is pushing this?
A: The traditional robot market is heavily dominated by the automotive industry—it’s a huge market that really has very few robots at all.
These robots are expensive, they are inflexible, but they are great solutions if you have high value, high volume continuous flow manufacturing, which is exactly what the car industry is.
But if you have short-run production, flexible manufacturing, you can’t justify the cost of those robots.
That means there is a big market of unautomated tasks that really hasn’t been penetrated.
There is this whole class of jobs that are repeatable tasks, uninteresting tasks that ought to be automated, but we need a new set of tools that fundamentally hits a different price point that includes a much greater degree of flexibility so you can move them from job to job to job. New tools that are easily trained and retrained and repurposed without calling in an integrator.
That collection of attributes is a completely different market than the existing and traditional robot market.
It is a giant market of that has been largely untapped. Robot makers are starting to realize that.
Q: What makes Sawyer and the collaborative robots so different from traditional machines?
A: Fundamentally, the difference is that we build robots’ software first. It’s a core philosophy.
We think we ought to be able to use sophisticated software and artificial intelligence to create high performance machines on top of inexpensive hardware. Doing that has allowed us to drive a lower cost production.
Just look at Baxter. Over the course of a year and a half, we doubled its precision and we tripled the speed, all with software upgrades that were backward compatible to every Baxter ever sold.
At first, Baxter was only packing boxes, but then we were able to add more task capabilities, doing line loading and then machine tending, all with software. We have not changed the Baxter hardware since we first shipped it.
Sawyer is the same thing. We designed it to be a platform that is stable for quite some time, packed with software that continues to drive increases of value and the performance of it.
Q: Where is all of this taking us?
A: We’re going through a pretty significant change in the robotics industry.
We’re finally seeing the impact of Moore’s Law on reducing the cost and changing the dynamic between cost and capability of the hardware. That’s driving a real change in the robotics and automation business to this sort of new generation of robots.
It’s still early in the evolution, though. Today, collaborative robots make up just 2% of the robot market. But the market opportunities for our cost of robots are dramatically bigger—the sheer number of tasks that we can do is dramatically bigger than those that can be done by traditional industrial robots.
I think you’ll see five years from now, this new class, this new category of robots will really take off in markets all around the world.
There are lots of different types of applications out there. There will be our type of collaborative robots; there will be other purpose-built type robots; there will be drones doing certain activities. You will be seeing robots in lots of different walks of life—manufacturing, warehousing, consumer markets and services—because this basic fundamental architecture of software-driven robots allows you to create a whole different class.
It’s too early to give a nice crisp prediction of where it’s going to end up. But it’s such a fun time in the industry because it’s starting to take off.