With New Robot, Rodney Brooks and Rethink Are Thinking International

Xconomy Boston — 

Is there sibling rivalry among robots? There is now.

Rethink Robotics has unveiled its new robot, called Sawyer, as a complement to its first robot, Baxter. There is a family resemblance—screen face, long arm, red color—but the new machine is smaller, more precise, and holds the keys to the company’s expansion into global markets and electronics assembly.

The name Sawyer comes from an old term for someone who saws wood. “Baxter” was an old form of baker. This is a family of workers, steeped in tradition. “We’re into archaic English professions,” says Rethink founder and CTO Rodney Brooks.

The new robot has only one arm and no torso—making it much lighter and more portable than Baxter. Brooks notes that it meets the requirements for overnight shipping, unlike its big brother. It is slightly more expensive, however—$29,000 versus $25,000. That’s in part because it’s faster, more force-sensitive, and more agile. Its arm is powered by new harmonic drives that have a spring-like element in them (series elastic actuators, which are also in Baxter).

All of that means the new robot can do things that Baxter can’t—and vice versa.

“Sawyer is really aimed at electronics assembly, but not iPhone-level,” Brooks says. Rather, it is meant to work on things like medical devices that consist of a circuit board inside a box. One of its specific applications is to do the “low-skilled, boring job of circuit board testing,” Brooks says. The robot can put the board in a tester, close the lid, and wait for the result, often in a confined space.

The other big new feature: “Baxter is only certified for factories in North America. We designed Sawyer from day one to get worldwide certification,” Brooks says. “We’re going international, and we’re going into electronics manufacturing. We’re not there with Baxter. It is an enormous market.”

That’s crucial for the future of Rethink Robotics, which has learned a lot from its experience trying to sell Baxter to manufacturing companies. If anyone is patient about the robot market, it’s Brooks, a longtime professor at MIT who co-founded iRobot back in 1990. (IRobot didn’t have a big commercial hit until Roomba in 2002.)

Meanwhile, Rethink is getting much faster at building its robots. Baxter took almost four years to develop. Sawyer took just about one year. The company started working on it in January 2014, after going out to factories around the U.S. and analyzing 150-odd manufacturing tasks. From that, Brooks and his team came up with a set of specifications that would enable a new robot to do those tasks efficiently—and not just in the U.S., but anywhere.

“What I’m proudest of is our team is able to move that fast. This sort of speed is not the norm” in industrial robotics, he says.

Sawyer, a one-armed dexterous robot designed for electronics assembly. (Image: Rethink Robotics)

Sawyer, a one-armed dexterous robot designed for electronics assembly. (Image: Rethink Robotics)

The question remains: is the global manufacturing industry ready to adopt a new robot?

“We’re in trials and we’re getting a very positive response,” Brooks says. Still, he cautions that Rethink isn’t shipping the new product until the third quarter of 2015.

Since its start in 2008, Rethink Robotics has raised $100.1 million in venture funding from GE Ventures, Goldman Sachs, Sigma Partners, Highland Capital Partners, DFJ, Bezos Expeditions, and CRV. That makes the company, which has 80-some employees, one of the biggest technology bets in New England—particularly in robotics.

Brooks seems content to stay the course amid a lot of hype in other tech sectors. “It’s not wearable, there’s no virtual reality, no social networks—we’re just losers all around,” he jokes.