Robot revolution

A popular vacuum-cleaning robot clears a path for collaborative robots to make further inroads in industrial manufacturing settings


According to Million Insight, a global market research firm, the industrial robotics industry is slated to hit $40 billion by 2020. As manufacturers continue to look for reductions in operational costs, those numbers are sure to rise.

The research firm reports welding robots as the fastest-growing segment and material handling robots as holding the industry’s biggest market share. Collaborative robots, known as cobots, are also shaping the forecast for the industrial robotics industry. Manufacturers primarily look to this segment to handle repetitive tasks, such as assembly, sorting and parts handling. 


Family-owned Acorn Sales Co., which produces custom stamps and embossers, controls quality and price by deploying a Rethink Robotics’ Sawyer cobot.

From novelty to staple

Robots, of course, aren’t just for manufacturers. Everyone has heard of Roomba, the stalky little vacuum-cleaning robot that glides across consumers’ floors with ease. When Roomba first hit the marketplace in 2002, it seemed like a novelty cleaning tool, but since then, it has become a fixture in more than 10 million homes around the world.

Following the success of Roomba, the inventor, Rodney Brooks, launched Rethink Robotics in 2008. Brooks’ background includes a PhD in computer science from Stanford University and positions at MIT as the Panasonic Professor of Robotics as well as former director of the school’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. His academic work focused on the way in which robots accomplish everyday tasks.

The idea for Rethink came from a trip to the factories in China where the Roomba was being assembled. Brooks saw how mechanical the workers’ movements were to assemble it and thought, “there’s no reason that robots shouldn’t be able to do this.” The trick to designing an industrial cobot, however, is that it has to be built strong enough to thrive in heavy manufacturing settings, but also be safe enough for human workers to “collaborate” with them in close proximity.

Considering Brooks’ pedigree in the robotics community, it is of no surprise that Jeff Bezos’s personal investment firm took interest in Rethink Robotics alongside others, including Goldman Sachs and G.E. Ventures. In 2013, Rethink introduced its first industrial cobot, Baxter. Two years later, it introduced Sawyer, a smaller, higher precision cobot.


MS Schramberg, a manufacturer of magnets and magnet assemblies, leverages a Sawyer cobot and Intera 5 software to improve manufacturing efficiency.

Built strong

The equipment in metal manufacturing operations takes a beating. And that’s OK because the equipment is built to handle it. When it comes to cobots, however, there is a stigma that alludes to a lack of flexibility when compared to legacy robotic equipment. To buck this reputation, high-mix, low-volume manufacturing applications were top of mind when Rethink developed Baxter and Sawyer.

To offer a strong, sturdy but equally lightweight construction, the cobots are primarily made out of cast aluminum. Additionally, they were given an ingress protection rating of IP54 with the 5 referring to the cobots’ level of solid particle protection and the 4 referring to their level of ingress water protection. In laymen’s terms, that means the cobots can withstand the pervasive dust and fluids so often found in manufacturing settings.

“Even when there’s water or dust in the manufacturing environment, the cobots are rated to last 36,000 service hours,” says Carl Palme, director of product management at Rethink. “They were designed specifically for industrial environments. Beyond their construction, Rethink cobots are versatile, mobile and, essentially, tireless.”

To deliver on versatility, the cobots feature ClickSmart technology that allows quick plug and play for end-of-arm tooling. The tooling includes grippers, suctions cups and virtually anything that a third-party developer can create that can pass through Rethink’s ClickSmart platform.

“Having the ability to swap a tool under a minute is very important,” Palme says, “especially when you’re thinking about the lean manufacturing concept of SMED, single-minute exchange of dies. Quick tool changes and job setups are differentiators that matter a lot to our customers in the metals fabrication industry – especially if they’re dealing with a high-mix, low-volume production line.”

In terms of mobility, manufacturers have high expectations. Shop floor layouts are subject to change according to product mix. And just as human operators may need to move from one operation to another, the same holds true for cobots.

“If you’re using the robot across multiple tasks, we have what’s called the Robot Positioning System,” Palme says. “When you move the robot from one application or location to another, it will go to what we call Landmarks, take a picture of them and quickly understand where it is in relationship to the machine, fixture or table. Redeploying the robot, therefore, is quite simple, allowing our customers to deal with their variable environments. It’s all about SMED”


Custom plastic-injection molding manufacturer Harrison Mfg. deploys a Sawyer cobot at its Jackson, Miss., facility.

Built human

In terms of their tireless nature, cobots are taking on jobs that typically wear on human operators to the point of injury or serious job dissatisfaction. Instead of requiring operators to exert extreme force to place a part into a chuck over and over, for example, a cobot can step in instead. 

“One of the biggest problems that we have in the United States is finding people that want to do these types of jobs,” Palme says. “Being able to provide operators with a job that’s more satisfying allows you to maintain your best workers while also improving quality.”

When operators are faced with fatigue, a part could be improperly placed resulting in quality issues. In various applications, Rethink cobots have reduced quality issues by 90 percent while allowing operators to focus on more value-added tasks.

Truly, the cobots are built to be like human operators on the shop floor. They feature built-in torque sensors at every joint to measure the amount of force the cobots are exerting. They also have a vision system that allows them to work in settings with lots of variability. When something is put in front of the robot, it is able to see that part and begin to work.


The Sawyer cobot produces real-time robot performance manufacturing data with its Intera software.

Built with intelligence

The engineering and design of the Rethink cobots are also based on the idea of being “taught” rather than programmed. Utilizing features such as Landmarks, the cobots can quickly adapt to a new job on the plant floor. Similarly, force sensing and error handlers allow the cobots to be taught how to deal with common operator issues.

“In a lot of cases, the cobots are taking over tedious tasks, such as sitting in front of a machine and swapping out a new part every minute or so,” Palme explains. “With the help of force sensing, a cobot thrives in these environments because it can deal with the variability of picking up parts that might not be the same size every time. Even if chips or other components are in the way, the cobot can still place these parts where they need to be based on some logic that you can teach the cobot.”

To teach the cobots, Rethink developed its Intera software, which includes a visual programming language. This language allows operators to teach the cobots how to do the jobs they’re assigned by literally grabbing the cobots’ arms, moving them to where they’ll need to go and teaching the robots what they want them to do. And, if the operator needs to customize it to do more complex jobs, they can plug a laptop into the cobot and put its IP address on a web browser where they are served the software.

“It starts creating a behavior for the robot behind the scenes,” Palme adds. “Through Intera and our visual programming language, you can do incredibly complex stuff in a straightforward manner. This is a huge differentiator for doing value-added work, and it’s really what makes the cobots so special. Although the hardware is incredible, just looking at the software and what is possible is truly amazing.”

For fabricators that have not employed robots in the past, their programming is often the biggest hurdle to overcome. When developing Intera, Rethink had to consider the range of operators that would need to work with it.

“Designing the software was tricky because we had two users in mind,” Palme says. “If you look at who is in manufacturing today, it’s baby boomers who struggle with change because they’ve been doing things the same way for so long. At the same time, we were designing for the newer generation that grew up with smartphones. For somebody who’s always lived with technology, they can pick up the software the same day. And because it’s so intuitive, veterans can also quickly learn how to use it.”

The cobots’ software also allows fabricators to take advantage of the concept of Industry 4.0, which like programming can be intimidating for some. Thanks to the company’s Insights feature, which is built into its Intera software, a fabricator doesn’t need to bring in new, expensive staff with deep experience in analyzing data. 

“Insights is an analytical tool,” Palme says. “Users can choose to display that data right on the cobot’s display where the eyes would normally be. At a glance, a line manager can look at the cobot’s display to see what’s happening on that line, such as parts produced, cycle time and force. If something is trending in the wrong direction, they can instantly understand why that’s happening and make appropriate changes to optimize the line or correct the situation.” 


A Sawyer cobot augments human efforts by taking on tedious, repetitive tasks.

Built safe

No matter the type of equipment, built-in safety features are a big selling point. Occupational injuries range from pinched fingers to back strains and much worse. They can be the result of workplace fatigue, repetitive lifting, placing parts into machinery that is not properly safeguarded or bypassing existing safeguarding.

“It’s quite common for our customers to put a cobot between a dangerous machine and a human worker,” Palme says. “An example is a press brake where the cobot is putting the sheet metal into the machine. In that scenario, you’re removing the human risk factor of working too quickly and making a mistake that could result in a serious injury. It’s a benefit for machine operators and in the long run, it also lowers insurance costs.”

The safety aspect of the cobots also lowers the barriers for investing in them. Depending on the application, many do not require safeguarding, which, in turn, lowers the initial cost of ownership.

“Small manufacturers definitely benefit from this, but so do the bigger manufacturers,” Palme says. “In the past, they wouldn’t have been able to justify certain projects because of how much involvement it would take to deploy a robot. Similarly, it also allows you to justify a project easier. If you don’t have to build all of the safeguarding around the machine, then it allows you to move the robot from one machine to another, which is attractive. Now, they’re automating projects all over the place.”

Rethink Robotics

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