When the robot-building startup company Rethink Robotics Inc. shut down in October, the news took many in the industry by surprise. The Boston-based firm had achieved some high-profile successes with its "Baxter" and "Sawyer" collaborative robots, including a deployment by DHL Supply Chain, which used the bots in its warehouses for co-packing and value-added tasks like assembly and kitting. Despite those wins, the company ran short of cash when robot sales fell short of expectations and a deal to sell the company collapsed, Rethink CEO Scott Eckert told The Boston Globe.
Founded in 2008, Rethink Robotics introduced its first "smart" robot, Baxter, in 2012. Baxter was followed by a smaller, faster version, Sawyer, in 2015. Both featured bright red articulated arms that allowed them to perform rote repetitive jobs, freeing up human workers for higher-value tasks. The robots were notable for their endearing interactive humanoid "faces," which enabled them to communicate with co-workers.
Its shutdown notwithstanding, Rethink Robotics made a major contribution to the field, industry observers say. The company led the charge in the development of collaborative robots, or "cobots," which are designed to safely work side by side with people, rather than being segregated in a separate section of the facility.
"Rethink helped to create and define the collaborative robotics space," Rick Faulk, CEO of mobile warehouse robot vendor Locus Robotics, told the MIT Technology Review. "The contributions of [the founders] to the robotics field, though slightly ahead of their time, will continue to influence developers for many years to come. Their work opened the minds of prospective customers to the possibility of robots."