Humans have been fascinated with robots and automatons for millennia, or, at least, since Talos, the mythical bronze giant made by the Vulcans that guarded Crete.
But despite their allure, robots are still relatively rare. Scott Eckert, chief executive of Rethink Robotics, says that some 90 percent of manufacturing tasks still don’t use automation. “Traditional industrial robots are expensive, require safety cages, need to be programmed, and aren’t easily moved on the fly to work on another task,” Eckert says.
That’s why his company started developing collaborative robots that can work safely next to humans and free them from dull and repetitive tasks.
The company’s first product was Baxter, which is already assembling and packing things next to workers in a number of American factories, including GE labs. (GE Ventures, GE’s venture capital arm, is also an investor in Eckert’s company.)
This week, Rethink Robotics launched Sawyer, a new one-armed robot designed for high-precision tasks requiring agility and flexibility. “Sawyer significantly expands the range of tasks that our type of robots can do for manufacturers,” Eckert says.
The CEO talked to GE Reports about the new robot.
GE Reports: Why build a new robot?
Scott Eckert: Sawyer answers the demand for a robot with the ability to take on precise machine tending tasks, such as operating circuit board testers or CNC machines. These are the types of highly repetitive jobs ripe for automation and ideal applications for Sawyer, which is a single arm, high performance, collaborative robot. It’s designed to work like humans do, easily adapting to real world, semi-structured environments, and the variability that entails.
GER: Is Sawyer a collaborative robot?
SE: Yes. Traditional industrial robots are expensive, require safety cages, need to be programmed, and aren’t easily moved on the fly to work on another task. Sawyer is a smart, affordable, collaborative robot, trained by demonstration, changes tasks easily, and works safely next to humans without the need for safeguarding. It’s well suited for 90 percent of the manufacturing tasks which, up until now, could not be economically or practically automated.
Sawyer, the new collaborative workforce robot from Rethink Robotics and CEO Scott Eckert. Image credit: Rethink Robotics
GER: Have there always been plans for more robots?
SE: Yes. With Baxter we introduced the concept of safe, interactive robots, knowing that the needs of our customers would continue to drive innovation, leading to a family of smart, collaborative robots designed to do different tasks. Our software platform, Intera, was designed from the outset to power a family of robots, with Baxter being the first and Sawyer the second.
GER: How is Sawyer different than Baxter?
SE: With a single arm and a smaller footprint, Sawyer literally fits in to work cells seamlessly for high precision tasks requiring significant agility and flexibility. Sawyer also contains a different motor and gearbox assembly, which is required to perform the machine tending tasks it’s designed to do. Sawyer has a camera in its head, as does Baxter, but Sawyer also features a Cognex camera with a built-in light source in its arm for precision vision applications. Otherwise, Sawyer and Baxter both are trained by demonstration, have an intuitive user interface and run on our Intera software platform.
GER: Will Baxter and Sawyer work together?
While Baxter is designed for specific tasks, such as material transfer, box packing, and line loading, Sawyer is designed for machine tending. In factories where combinations of these tasks are required, it’s our expectation that Sawyer and Baxter will be working side by side. In fact, many of our early pilot customers for Sawyer already have Baxter robots in use.
GER: What makes you most excited about Sawyer?
SE: Sawyer significantly expands the range of tasks that our type of robots can do for manufacturers, offering a range of automation solutions for different applications. We will also be using Sawyer as our launch pad to expand Rethink Robotics into major manufacturing markets outside of the US. The combination of expanding tasks and expanding geographies means that our opportunity with Sawyer is ten times the opportunity we had before.
Sawyer’s sibling, Baxter, is already working in American factories. Image credit: Rethink Robotics
GER: When will we get to see Sawyer in action?
SE: We’ll be releasing Sawyer with limited availability this summer and general availability later in the year. Currently we’re in the process of beta testing Sawyer in high performance tasks with some of our key customers, including GE, Jabil and Steelcase.
GER: How will Sawyer impact the collaborative robotics market, and how will collaborative robots impact manufacturing?
SE: With Baxter, we defined the category by showing the world how robots and people could work together to add flexibility and drive productivity in a wide range of manufacturing settings. With Sawyer we’re taking it to the next level, with a high performance robot capable of taking on many new applications. With 90 percent of the tasks in manufacturing not yet automated, there is a substantial opportunity to use smart collaborative robots like these to solve the labor cost and labor shortage problems in manufacturing today, creating better jobs for people and higher productivity for manufacturers.
GER: How do you see the collaborative robotics market evolving over the next 5 years?
SE: Over the next five years we expect rapid adoption of collaborative robots in most major manufacturing markets. The adoption may be slow at first, as this is a new technology for many manufacturers and requires a new way of thinking about robots (hence the name of our company). But adoption will be rapid in the medium to long term as the benefits of collaborative robots become clear.