The robot named Baxter who wanted to change the world of work

The robot named Baxter who wanted to change the world of work

In this weekly series, CNBC takes a look at the companies that made the inaugural Disruptor 50 list, 10 years later.

One of the enduring lessons of the iPhone age is that Steve Jobs drove what the consumer didn’t know he wanted until he offered it to them. Robotics pioneer Rodney Brooks has worked out a similar idea – with varying degrees of success.

His robot vacuum, Roomba, and its parent company iRobotIt was recently sold to Amazon for $1.7 billion, which has made the robotic vacuum cleaner category fairly inexpensive, and a must-have for many consumers.

said Matt Bean, an assistant professor in the Technology Management Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an expert in robotics.

But another big, early idea for Brooks didn’t work the way he or the world imagined.

Rethink Robotics was founded in 2008 with the idea that kobots — a robot that works alongside humans in ways that traditional automation can’t (i.e. with much less risk to humans), and without the fence that most industrial robots have stayed in — the market has been waiting to take place among customers. industrialists. But despite all the new ideas that Brooks and his colleagues put forward in rethinking, the first Kubot never caught it.

It went viral in the press, sure, and if you’ve been following tech news at the beginning of the last decade, you’ve likely seen Baxter and his “eyes” staring off the screen in his arms at some point in a photo or video. At CNBC, we learned firsthand the limitations of working with new industrial robots when we invited Baxter on air to attend a live segment as part of Rethink who was named to the inaugural Disruptor 50 list in 2013. For technical reasons, it could have been a lot harder than we imagined to get On Baxter in the Television Studio.

Although he may not be a part of the future of robotics anymore, there is no history of kubots that can be written without Baxter.

“There’s no such thing as Cobot without Rod Brooks,” Bean said. ‘Rethinking the industry started.’

After much early fanfare, reality is starting to rethink. By 2018, it was struggling to scale its operations and find enough buyers for the Baxter, as its two-armed design proved a novel idea, but a mistake. “Nobody needs a two-armed robot,” Bean said, describing this design decision as “humans projecting their physical form onto the robot.”

The rethink pivoted, in what turned out to be a move made in hindsight, to a one-arm robot named Sawyer. But technology has other problems.

Rethinking an approach using flexible actuators — a technology of which one Brooks co-founder was an expert — that allowed the robot to perform “force sensing,” an approach the company supports because it will make robots safer around human coworkers. Rethink’s design will also lower the cost of robots, eliminating industry standard reliance on motors and related parts.

Paul Maider, a mechanical engineer who invested early in Rethink through his VC firm, told the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in After death to rethink Going deeper into the technical shortcomings, the cheaper parts as well as the force sensing seemed like a way to drive down prices in the robotics market and attract customers.

It has already led to lower prices.

“The truth is, it’s priced very, very shockingly low,” Bean said. “They did an amazingly good job of sourcing materials and design, and were going for a third or a quarter of the price for other robots.”

But Rethink never achieved the market penetration or scale it needed to maintain its operations. With financial conditions deteriorating, Rethink became a takeover target for a Chinese company, a deal Penny says would have had a good chance of provoking the company to expand. But that deal was scrapped “at the last minute,” according to the company, and This was followed by the bankruptcy of 2018. Rethink was bought out of bankruptcy by German automation company Hahn Group, which is still trying to make the technology a success today.

In a statement provided to TechCrunch at the time of its demise, Rethink said, “We were early to market a highly innovative product that was ahead of its time, and unfortunately, we did not have the commercial success we expected.”

That’s right, Rethink had no shortage of innovative and interesting ideas, even if they weren’t suitable for the market.

According to Beane, one of the most interesting things was the worker’s ability to program Kobot. “People don’t get much use of this feature anymore, but that was a GUI system that didn’t require code and you could teach it, train it to do a job as a worker,” Benny said. “But no manager will turn on these features,” he added.

This is an idea that Brooks is still working on today, with the latest robotics startup Robust.ai, co-founded with cognitive scientist Gary Marcus, Who makes warehouse cubot, Carter, such as a mobile shopping cart that provides transportation within fulfillment centers. “It can drive in any direction and it’s programmable and the operator can cooperate physically,” Benny said. “There is a lot of the same DNA.”

Once Sauer became the main qubot, Rethink invested in technology that combined qubots with pre-existing industrial automation, an interesting but ultimately another bottleneck that was costly in engineering time to connect and communicate with machines such as conveyors. “Just adjusting the conveyor speed is very expensive,” Benny said.

The DNA that became a standard in the kobot market that Baxter, and later Sawyer, hoped to control, is from rival Rethink and Denmark-based Universal Robots. While its kobots might seem “too boring” from Beane’s point of view, they were what the market ultimately wanted.

“In the end, sequential flexi motors may not have been the best idea in the world,” Maider told ASME. “What customers really want is a low-cost, simple, fast and repeatable robot. They want to put something in that specific spot over and over again. In the end, achieving that was more complicated for us than some of our competitors because they weren’t trying to do force sensing.”

Even the two arms Baxter had could always be bought by the buyer if they really wanted that approach, by buying two single-arm robots, that’s what Universal Robots got – that the industrial automation company got Tiradine in 2015 – excels in, with cobots UR3, UR5 and UR7 driving sales, and Successive generations of the Kubot line Continue to hit the market.

The opportunity for robotics technology is still great, although it continues to follow other automation methods to penetrate the market. Robot sales in the North American market was growingand a Teradyne unit led by Universal Robots see Steady, if not explosive, growth in sales as well. Revenue was $300 million in 2019, then rose to $376 million last year after the Covid virus subsided. According to Wall Street estimates, sales could reach $440 million this year, or a growth of about 18%. This growth rate is higher than the percentage of total revenue it represents, which is still less than 15%.

“A lot will happen,” Benn said. He added, “Progress often appears to be slow up close…but the benefit of an automated system that can accomplish public tasks at reasonable cost is extraordinary, potentially worth billions and perhaps trillions.”

And costs continue to fall, from batteries to sensors and software, which means the price performance of robots continues to rise steadily. But where the kobot finds its greatest benefit remains an open question. While in the early decades use of the industrial world was more often a marketing ploy or, at best, an experiment rather than demonstrating widespread adoption, there is reason to predict multiple roles for robots based on an aging demographic.

“Anyone who says not in my life, you better wish they were in yours, because you’ll need help,” Bean said.

He predicts that the jobs outside the manufacturing sector that robot cups have been associated with — from warehousing to retail, medical (think cobots bringing supplies to nurses) and retirement communities — are areas poised for increased use. “Manufacturing is about high productivity, high consistency, and you can automate getting out of it without a kobot,” Bean said. “We are just beginning to take advantage of this potential and use it more widely.”

Rodney Brooks is among the robotics experts who have spoken of an aging world and a working population that isn’t quite as strong. wrote in A blog post covering his yearly forecast “Soon the homes of the elderly will be crowded with too many robots.”

Wall Street analysts focus on the opportunity presented by a chronic labor shortage, and related changes taking place in the global outsourcing model that economies including the United States have relied on for decades. With the “near support” and the introduction of more industrial activity, there is an increased demand for labor in the narrow labor market. One answer is automation, and technology like Universal Robots is relatively easy to program and implement.

But one big problem that cobots have yet to solve is the same one that started Brooks down a path of rethinking: figuring out what everyone wants from this technology, the “killer application,” so to speak, of the robot. Universal Robots has many different applications for its technology, but it is not one application driving strong demand in one very large market. This is a solvable problem, but it is still a work in progress. The robots that run popcorn stations in the cinema or automated coffee makers are not a career opportunity that would take the kobot to center stage in the economy. But there is a shortage of people and automation must be one of the solutions, even if it does not happen by tomorrow.

We haven’t gotten into a realm of real physical cooperation between a human and a cobot, says Beane, “the kind of things humans reach to grab the next thing and the robot sees I reach for it and delivers it to me and we might even clean it up against each other,” but, “We get to Get there,” he added.

The most prevalent automated systems remain the most dangerous and are maintained remotely.

But Ben believes Rethink came closer to solving the problem than she was given the credit for, and has yet to prove in her new life under Han. Han did not respond to a request for comment as of press time.

“Another eight months and they might have come to market,” said Bean. “It was inexpensive and reliable. I really think we could have seen the iPhone moment.”

In his personal blog, Brooks summed up the rethinking story this way: “Baxter and Sawyer were the first safe robots that did not require a cage to keep humans away from them in order to protect humans. Sawyer was the first modern industrial robot that finally got rid of having a computer-like language to control it, as did all robots Since the idea was first developed at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in the early 1970s, much remains to be done.”

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