Design Engineering

Editorial: O Pioneers, an ode to the life and times of Rethink Robotics

Devin Jones   

General Sustainability Machine Building cobots Rethink Robotics Universal Robots

It would be easy to take Rethink’s sudden closure as an indication that cobots are more hype than substance yet all other indicators say otherwise.


Rethink’s flagship cobot Baxter/Photo courtesy of Sharon VanderKaay

Similar to a game of Russian roulette, finishing first is sometimes a losing strategy, especially when it comes to innovation. Often the companies or individuals who create a market inevitably fall to more nimble, better financed or firmly established, albeit slower, competitors.

Take, for example, physicist Joseph Engelberger and self-educated inventor George Devol. In 1959, the pair developed the Unimate #001, the world’s first industrial robot prototype, funded by Engelberger’s employer, Condec Corp., and its CEO, Norman Schafler. Shortly thereafter, Engelberger established Unimation Inc. and, by 1961, the historic company’s patented and meagerly programmable, 2,700-pound hydraulic arm was already at work in General Motors’ New Jersey die casting plant.

While the U.S. manufacturing community largely ignored the nascent robot during the 1960s, Unimation licensed it’s technology, in 1969, to Europe’s Nokia and Kawasaki Heavy Industries of Japan, two large manufacturing markets that eagerly adopted the novel automation machinery. By the beginning of the 1970s, GM and other major U.S. manufacturers had also embraced robotics and Unimation virtually owned the worldwide robotics market.

That dominance, however, wouldn’t last as Unimation faced relentless market erosion from European and Japanese competitors during the 1970s. The company also ignored customers’ desires, zealously refusing to switch its robots from hydraulics to electric actuation. A decade later, the company found itself deep in debt, outmaneuvered by competitors and ultimately broken by the recession of the early 1980s. While it stuttered on for a few more years, the pioneering company wouldn’t see the dawn of the 90s.


Nearly 30 years later, another innovative robotics company seems to have fallen to the same fate. In early October, Rethink Robotics, pioneer of the collaborative robot or cobot, shocked the robotics community when it announced it had shut its doors. Ten years earlier, the Boston-based company introduced the anthropomorphic Baxter robot, complete with two interactively-trainable arms and cartoonish digital eyes intended to communicate its “emotional” state.

The innovative robot became the poster child for a new era of automation in which people and robots could coexist safely and productively in the same space. Established in 2008 by MIT professor and iRobot co-founder Rodney Brooks, the company managed to cement the cobot concept as more than a futuristic fad. Other companies, principally Universal Robotics, and more established robotics firms (e.g. Kuka, Fanuc, ABB, Yaskawa, etc.) followed Rethink’s lead.

Ultimately, competition from those larger firms left Rethink vulnerable. When a sizable deal with a Chinese distributor fell through earlier this year, the company was left with too many customized, unwanted robots and too much debt to continue. A last ditch effort to sell the company failed to save it.

It would be easy to take Rethink’s sudden closure as an indication that cobots are more hype than substance yet all other indicators say otherwise. Universal Robots, for example, recently celebrated the sale of its 25,000th cobot and analysts unanimously foresee the market growing at a staggering pace in the next five years. While Rethink won’t benefit from that coming boon, its foresight and intellectual property will seed it. Not all pioneers survive, but their sacrifice is a pivotal part of the journey.


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