Rethink Robotics Shuts Down
Isaac Maw posted on October 04, 2018 |
The Sawyer robot. (Image courtesy of Rethink Robotics)
The Sawyer robot. (Image courtesy of Rethink Robotics)

The news today that Rethink, the pioneering collaborative robotics firm behind Baxter and Sawyer, had shut down came as a surprise to many in the industry.

The Robot Report broke the news yesterday that the company was hoping to be acquired, but the deal was never sealed. CEO Scott Eckert stated, “We thought that we had a deal that we were going to be able to close.”

The shutdown comes after missed sales goals for Baxter and Sawyer, the company’s robot products. Rethink also sold a modular end effector system called the Click Smart Gripper Kit. Baxter represented one of the first collaborative robot products on the market, along with cobots from Universal Robots. Sawyer, the smaller, single-arm robot, had been in the market for three years.

Rethink is now selling off its patents and intellectual property. Its 91 employees will likely be quickly be snapped up by other robotics firms.

About six weeks ago, I spoke with a salesman at a collaborative robot distributor and system integrator which sold both Rethink and Universal Robots products. At the time, he made a comment that Rethink Robotics took a pushier approach with distributors, encouraging them to take on more inventory before units were sold. In hindsight, if his observation was correct, it was likely the result of pressure to meet sales goals within Rethink this year. By contrast, Universal Robots avoided large distributor inventories, as it could pressure distributors to discount the robots.

The shutdown could leave distributors with many thousands of dollars of inventory of brand-new Sawyer and Baxter robots.

I recently spoke with a representative from Rethink Robotics at IMTS 2018, about the company’s focus on user-friendliness and flexibility. “When our customers buy our robots, they're really looking for flexibility, rapid redeployment, and they're looking for a robot to really capitalize on that and get a good return on investment,” said Product Manager Mike Fair. “So, our strategy is to have a robot that's really easy to use, that has some great software.”

The news comes just weeks after Universal Robots, the dominant brand in collaborative robotics and Rethink’s largest competitor, celebrated the sale of its 25,000th robot with a special gold-painted robot delivered to the customer.

The two companies took a very different approach to the user experience design of the robot. While both ecosystems support lead-to-teach functionality, the Universal Robots teach pendant can be used to jog and program the robot, loading special scripts and plugins to do movements and use accessories like cameras, force sensors and grippers. By contrast, Rethink Robotics did not offer a teach pendant. Users instead programmed the robot on a consumer laptop or through lead-to-teach demonstration.

Current users of Rethink robots may have a rocky road ahead without support from the company. It remains to be seen whether third-party system integrators will continue to provide support for Baxter and Sawyer. It seems possible that college and university engineering students might expect to see a Sawyer or two in the lab next semester.


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