Rod Brooks and Rethink Reveal an Industrial Robot for the Masses

9/18/12Follow @gthuang

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do things like push a button, work with other machines to test or weigh parts, and use both its arms together to move a box out of the way, says Brooks.

“We’ve taken this robot to factories—never seen the factory before—and an hour after we pull up, it’s on the factory floor doing a useful task,” says Brooks. “We show it to the line workers, we show them how to program it, and in a few minutes they’re getting it to do simple tasks.”

Much has been made of Rethink’s big goal of revitalizing U.S. manufacturing. “It gives automation capabilities to small companies that couldn’t afford it before,” says Brooks. “They don’t have to put in safety cages, they don’t have to reconfigure. It’s not a long, drawn-out project, and it’s cost-effective to do a task for two hours. Whereas a traditional industrial robot, there’s so much overhead of getting that task set up. We think it’s going to make U.S. labor more competitive on low-end goods that currently we can only do in Vietnam. For a certain class of objects, and a certain class of tasks, it adds to the attractiveness of on-shoring, or at least not off-shoring.”

Interestingly, the robot has gone through six iterations in four years, says Brooks. The first prototypes had only one arm, and they were configured very differently from the current model. But going out to plants and talking to potential customers about the tasks that needed doing—as well as working closely with robotics suppliers and fabricators—led to the current design. And it is a fresh one: less than a dozen have been built so far, and some software debugging remains to be done. Brooks emphasizes that the robot can be manufactured cheaply because of advances in materials and many built-in design features.

One point of contention from entrenched vendors: “The conventional industrial robot manufacturers will say, ‘It’s not as precise as our robot.’ And you know what? It’s not!” says Brooks. “You move it 10 centimeters, it still works. You move theirs 1 millimeter, it doesn’t work. It’s not about precision, it’s about sensing.” Brooks continues, “A traditional industrial robot is measured by speed and repeatability. Ours should be measured by adaptability, flexibility, and ease of use.” But he admits: “When it’s a completely new category of product, is the world ready for it?”

Rethink RoboticsI asked Brooks how this product launch stacks up against other famous commercial robots from his career, like Roomba and PackBot. “My aspirations are high for this robot. This is the first mass-produced, slightly sentient humanoid robot,” he says. “How well it sells, we don’t know yet. That’s why we’re VC-funded.”

He did offer this comparison to Roomba: “A big lesson we learned from the Roomba [was] they had to work out of the box. This is the first out-of-the-box humanoid,” he says. “These are the first ones going out in the wild.” (And coincidentally, he says, Rethink’s rollout comes exactly 10 years after Roomba’s release, down to the week.)

Brooks says the big challenge for Rethink now is refining its first product based on customer feedback—and figuring out what needs to be added to the robot over time, as well as eventually expanding the product roadmap. Some vestiges of his big-idea academic thinking come out as he talks about selling Baxter to researchers (for $22K they’ll buy it, he says) and providing a software development kit for them to experiment with the robot. “I think it’s going to be interesting that people will be able to use it,” he says. “I think they’ll try all sorts of different applications for it, ones we would never have thought of. It’s going to be really exciting to see which ones of those actually make economic sense.”

For Rethink, the near-term path is clear. “We have a solid economic case for manufacturing,” Brooks says. “But once we get it out there, who knows?”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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    There is a growing demand for accessible
    robots—robots that are easy to program, use, and buy. Rethink is
    well positioned to address this. Other
    companies, such as Robai Technologies and Universal Robots are making advances
    in this area as well.