What does the Rethink Robotics closure mean for the robotics industry?

robotic hand

What does the Rethink Robotics closure mean for the robotics industry?

A pioneer of user-friendly, intelligent robots has announced it’s shutting down.

Rethink Robotics produced collaborative industrial robots, over a 10-year period during which they managed to raise $150 million from investors.

However, sales had been falling short of the company’s goals, resulting in the US-based company closing its doors.

“I am most proud that we changed industrial robots forever, bringing them out of the cage and making them so that ordinary people could get robots to do new tasks and to tweak what they were doing without writing or reading a single line of code,” founder Rodney Brooks told IEEE Spectrum.

Robotics on the rise

Despite the sad news, the robotics industry in general is booming.

According to the latest figures from the International Federation of Robotics, worldwide sales of robots increased by 31% in 2017 over 2016 – a new record.

The need for automation is driving demand across industries, from manufacturing to ecommerce and beyond.

Rethink Robotics led the change of automation by creating collaborative, safe, easy-to-use and flexible robots. Baxter and Sawyer, the company’s collaborative pair of robots, could be programmed to move through a task, such as picking objects from a conveyor belt. This process mean they could then learn to repeat it for themselves.

But why did such a pioneering company fail? And what can the robotics industry learn from its demise?

Ahead of their time

“The story of Rethink perhaps also offers lessons for the future of the industry.” Writes Will Knight, Senior Editor AI, MIT Tech Review.

“Approaches like deep learning and reinforcement learning could help robots figure out how to complete complex tasks by themselves… But look carefully and you’ll see that these technologies are at a very early stage, and that deploying them commercially could prove extremely challenging.”

Founder Rodney Brooks previously ran MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab and pioneered a ground up approach to robotics in the 1990’s.

Despite industrial robotics flourishing, AI-driven advances are not yet able to keep up with the forward vision of Brooks. Proving the difficulty of real innovation.

A lack of diversity

“Part of the lesson here may in fact be that the long term winners will be more about the entire robot portfolio and ecosystem rather than just one or two configurations,” Peter Harris, CEO of HighRes Biosolutions told ZDNet.

Rethink focused on two robotic platforms to cover a number of use cases. Its model envisioned humans and robots working side-by-side, a harmonious though, but not a viable alternative to other mainline cobot makers, including Universal Robots who have a 60% market share.

“What really sets the leading robotic arm vendors apart is the variety of robotic arms that they offer,” John Santagate, Research Director in Service Robots for IDC said in the same article.

“Having the wider portfolio in terms of size, payload, and other features makes it more likely to find an appropriate solution that is best fit.”

Ultimately this news doesn’t reflect how the robotics and automation industries are faring, in fact they’re thriving, but in 2018 we are still waiting on the technology and market demand to make truly smart robots.

 

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