Last Wednesday Rethink Robotics, a major player in the collaborative robotics world, closed up shop abruptly. The company’s robots Baxter and Sawyer were easily recognizable to any engineer, thanks to their big eyes and distinct red exteriors. But while the robots were major standouts, they weren’t selling. As reported by the Boston Globe, sales were down for both robots, and the company was trying to sell the company quickly and quietly. According to Rethink’s chief executive, Scott Eckert, the company had been running low on cash and at the very last minute, a potential buyer backed out.
Rethink Robotics was founded in 2008 by Rodney Brooks, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-founder of iRobot. Most everyone in the robotics space knew of Rethink Robotics. The company’s robots were some of the first cobots on the market, easily recognizable, and further distinguished by their programming ease. Each had a heads-up display that allowed the user to interact with the robot on the spot—no need to connect with a computer or a pendant device.
Rethink’s trouble sparked when a specialized order for a China distributor fell through. The company had designed and specialized robots for the Chinese market and were suddenly left with extra inventory that couldn’t be sold. However, the cobot market has also become crowded over the last few years. The major robotic vendors have entered the game including Kuka, Fanuc, and ABB. Each has their own version of a cobot and the companies have a longstanding pedigree in the automation world.
The cobot space is also dominated by a longstanding player in the market: Universal Robots. UR was the first to enter this space and it shows. It’s hard to enter an exhibit hall at any conference these days without seeing a UR cobot. The company just announced the sale of its 25,000th cobot last month.
One of the major benefits of Rethink Robotics’ cobots was the ability to program the robot directly on the device, without the need for an external computer.
Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation (A3), expressed his gratitude for and admiration of the company. “Rodney Brooks and Rethink Robotics are important pioneers in the collaborative robot sector,” he said. “Like start-ups in all sectors, not everything goes smoothly. 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.”
Many may ask what this means for the future of cobots. Considering that Rethink was one of the first and most vocal companies in the cobot space, could the company’s demise indicate a burst bubble? Some engineers already considered cobots to be a passing fad, opining that traditional robots will always dominate the market.
Burnstein argues the opposite: “In no way does this slow the development or current user excitement about collaborative robots. We see a strong and growing demand for information on this segment of the market, as evidenced by the large turnout we have at all of our Collaborative Robot Conferences, including the upcoming Collaborative Robots, Advanced Vision, and AI Conference in Santa Clara, October 24 and 25.”
Personally? I think the cobot market will continue to grow. Besides the obvious benefits of having a work environment with both human and machine elements, cobots are the gateway to a more automated world. We know that automation is coming. IoT and robotic systems are being widely adopted across several industries and cobots are a great entry point for human workers to grow accustomed to automated systems. They have and will continue to help us transition to a more automated world.
I echo Burnstein’s sentiments in saying goodbye to Rethink Robotics. “While Rethink sadly exits the market, dozens of other companies from around the world are entering the collaborative robot market,” he concludes. “And this interest in collaborative robots is fueling global interest in robotics, especially among small- and medium-sized companies. We wish the entire Rethink team the best of luck finding new positions in the industry and thank them for all they’ve done to revolutionize the robotics industry.”