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Cobot pioneer Rethink Robotics shuts down

05 October, 2018

Rethink Robotics, the American pioneer of collaborative robots (cobots), is shutting down, with the loss of 91 jobs, after talks to sell the business collapsed at the last minute. The company is reported to have got into difficulties when a large Chinese order did not materialise after Rethink had customised its Sawyer cobot for the Chinese market.

Rethink, which was founded in 2008 by Rodney Brooks, was well-known for its distinctive red robots with built-in screens showing a “face” which was intended to make it easier for human co-workers to interact with them. Its first industrial robot was the two-armed Baxter machine, which was followed in 2015 by the more precise, one-armed Sawyer machine.

In a statement, Rethink said that it had been “early to market with a very innovative product that was ahead of its time, and unfortunately, we did not achieve the commercial success we had expected. A planned acquisition of the company fell through at the last moment. All of Rethink Robotics’ employees are being actively recruited for roles in other robotics firms.” The company is also selling its intellectual property and patent portfolio.

Rethink’s chief executive Scott Eckert told the Boston Globe that the company had run short of cash after selling fewer of its robots that expected. “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,” he said. “We thought that we had a deal that we were going to be able to close,” he added, but the unnamed buyer backed out at the last moment.

Founder Rodney Brooks told IEEE Spectrum that he was “most proud that we changed industrial robots forever, bringing them out of the cage and making them so that ordinary people could get robots to do new tasks and to tweak what they were doing without writing or reading a single line of code.

Pioneering: Rethink Robotics' Sawyer (left) and Baxter collaborative robots

“We also made it possible for hundreds of research groups around the world to have safe robot arms so that they could make rapid research progress using manipulation,” he added. “And we showed how real robot arms, with 35,000-hour lifetimes, could also be gentle enough to physically come into contact with humans – the consequences of this new class of robot are yet to be fully explored but it will be commonplace in just a few years.”

Over the course of its ten-year life, Rethink is estimated to have raised around $150m in funding.

Sales of collaborative robots, designed to work safely alongside humans, are still a tiny fraction of the total industrial robotics market. But revenues are predicted to expand rapidly, and another cobot pioneer, the Danish firm Universal Robots, announced recently that it has sold more than 25,000 robots since its launch in 2008. Universal’s global sales last year amounted to $170m.




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