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How collaborative robotics is making automation a no-brainer even for small companies

Norbert Sparrow

May 18, 2016

4 Min Read
How collaborative robotics is making automation a no-brainer even for small companies

Robots used to be prohibitively expensive, difficult to program and remarkably fixated on performing a single task really well. The advent of collaborative robotics has upended that paradigm. Not only has the technology broadened the types of tasks that can be automated, the cost of ownership has plummeted. The list price for a cobot is in the low double digits, and the total cost of deployment is between $50,000 and 60,000. As for programming, fuggedaboutid. It’s no wonder that Rethink Robotics (Boston, MA) has been drawing crowds at various trade shows over the last few years by showcasing its cobot Baxter going through the motions. Next month, at MD&M East and PLASTEC East, co-located events that are part of the most comprehensive advanced manufacturing show on the East Coast, the company would like to introduce you to Sawyer, the newest member of its family, at booth 2329.

Brian Benoit of Rethink Robotics will participate in a conference track dedicated to the smart manufacturing revolution at the co-located PLASTEC East and MD&M East events at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City on June 14 to 16. His presentation, “Man’s New Best Friend: The Future of Collaborative Robotics and Automated Intelligence,” is scheduled for June 16. For more information and to register to attend, go to the PLASTEC East and MD&M East websites. Use the promo code NY16PT to receive free expo admission and a 20% discount on conference passes.

Launched at the end of 2015, Sawyer is a single-arm robot that uses similar technology to Baxter, but takes it to the next level. Sawyer contains series elastic actuators in the joints for safety and force-control behavior and works off the same software stack as Baxter, but the specifications for reach and payload are different. “Sawyer can hold 4 kg and has a 1260-mm reach,” says Brian Benoit, Senior Product Manager at Rethink Robotics. ‘It is designed for specific applications involving machine tending in multiple industries. We did our due diligence after launching Baxter in 2012, and saw opportunities for the same type of robot performing different tasks.” Sawyer is the next-generation robot in a technology that is still fairly young.

Rethink Robotics' Baxter (left) now has a single-armed sibling, Sawyer. 

Cobots essentially came on the scene four or five years ago, says Benoit. In many ways, the technology was available—sensors, arms and so forth—but collaborative robotics put all of that together and, in the process, has really changed the conversation about affordability. “Rethink's robots can work with existing fixtures, making ease of redeployment so much simpler and lowering the barrier to implementation. There are many more plant operations where the technology is a good fit,” says Benoit. It should be noted that conventional automation deployment costs typically exceed the cost of the robot itself. “But our robots can be rolled up to where they need to work and can use existing fixtures. With the exception of some peripherals, like end effectors, the cost of deployment when it comes to collaborative robotics is largely the purchase price of the robot, and that has been a game changer,” says Benoit.

Ease of programming has been equally instrumental in putting robotics within reach of small manufacturers. The teach-by-demonstration component has removed the technology barrier, says Benoit, eliminating the need for an experienced programmer. The development of powerful software has also been a boon.

“You need software that can adapt to changes and the workspace, and Rethink Robotics has a software stack that allows you to do that quickly and easily,” says Benoit. In fact, the company has prioritized developing software that plays well with others. For example, Rethink Robotics maintains a close relationship with its key vendors, such as machine vision company Cognex. “A Cognex camera is embedded in Sawyer’s wrist, and we have a road map for adding functionality,” says Benoit, “and it’s all integrated. Users won’t have to learn two different versions of software. Sawyer uses its sensors to adapt to variable conditions, and our customers won’t need access to outside knowledge or an in-house vision expert.”

In the plastics processing world, cobots have their limitations. They are not suited, for example, to sit on top of a molder and pick and place parts on a conveyor. “But they are uniquely suited to perform a number of other applications,” notes Benoit. “Baxter is really good at packing parts at the end of the conveyor, and Sawyer takes that a step further and can sit in the middle of the line to move parts into and out of a machine to remove flash or transfer the part to a stamping machine, for example.”

You can get acquainted with Sawyer at the Rethink Robotics booth (2329) at the co-located MD&M East and PLASTEC East events at the Javits in New York City on June 14 to 16.

About the Author(s)

Norbert Sparrow

Editor in chief of PlasticsToday since 2015, Norbert Sparrow has more than 30 years of editorial experience in business-to-business media. He studied journalism at the Centre Universitaire d'Etudes du Journalisme in Strasbourg, France, where he earned a master's degree.


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