Farewell to Sawyer and Rethink Robotics

Oct. 15, 2018
Rethink Robotics’ ‘Sawyer’ collaborative robot

This past April, during my tenure as editor of Industrial Maintenance & Plant Operation magazine, I visited General Electric’s ‘Brilliant’ lighting factory in Hendersonville, NC. I was given a thorough exclusive tour of the production facility and an exclusive sit-down interview with its plant managers, which I turned into a feature story.

During the plant tour, I got to see its use of collaborative robots. I had previously seen cobots displayed at various expos, but this was the first time I saw them being used. In 2015, Rethink Robotics partnered with the Hendersonville factory to help roll “Sawyer,” a cobot aimed to aide in repetitive assembly tasks. It wasn’t anything exciting. Sawyer was just repetitively picking up a glass panel with its arm and moving it about 5 feet to where a human worker would grab it for assembly into a street lamp fixture.

It took trial-and-error for the plant to figure out how to best utilize Sawyer. First, it staged material for Sawyer to assemble, which worked, but by creating a job for the robot, it defeated its purpose as a cobot. So, it was then reassigned to the job of handing off glass that I mentioned above—which you can see in my video below—and most recently moved into a role where multiple Sawyers interact with a silicon-dispensing robot in a presentation role.

Because of my first-hand experience seeing Sawyer in action, I was legitimately bummed last week when I saw The Boston Globe first report that Rethink Robotics abruptly shut down on Oct. 3. The report said a deal to acquire Rethink fell through as an unidentified buyer backed out. Rethink’s sales of Sawyer and Baxter cobots fell short of expectations in recent years after making a splash when the company was founded in 2008 by MIT professor Rodney Brooks.

The Globe cites investment firm Robo Global co-founder Frank Tobe saying a failed major order from China led to a cash crisis for Rethink, while slowdown in the Chinese economy and trade war factors may have also played a role.

While Rethink was one of the first cobot creators to establish a global presence, competition soon added to its challenges. The Globe noted that Teradyne-based Universal Robots announced the sale of its 25,000th cobot in September. Other major players include Yaskawa, ABB, Kuka, and Fanuc.

Rethink CEO Scott Eckert told the Globe that the company will begin selling off its patent portfolio and intellectual property, and that its 91 employees expect to be in high demand from those previously mentioned competitors, among others. And while Rethink has now fallen, Eckert says the state of the robotics industry is healthy as ever. “I think history will say we changed industrial robotics forever,” Eckert told the Globe. “We showed the world that robots could safety work side-by-side with people.”

So, farewell Sawyer, and good luck.

About the Author

Mike Hockett | Former Editor

Mike Hockett was Editor in Chief for EE from September 2018 to Sept. 2019. Previously he served as editor for two manufacturing trade publications: Industrial Distribution, and Industrial Maintenance & Plant Operation. He began in sports writing for a trio of newspapers in Wisconsin and Iowa and earned a BA degree in print journalism from UW-Eau Claire.

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