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Are collaborative robots fading away?

Baxter, the first commercial collaborative robots able to interact with human workers did not get sufficient market traction to make it economically viable. Image credit: Rethinking Robotics

2018 has closed with the demise of Baxter (and Sayer) the first collaborative robots created back in 2012 by Rethinking Robotics. At the end of October 2018 the company announced it was closing down since they failed to be acquired by a bigger robotic company and were no longer able to stay in business.  Then, few days later the company announced its last moment acquisition by the Hahn Group becoming one of their business units.

Baxter was the first robot that could be taught by a fellow worker how to do a specific action. It didn’t need a programmer to change its way of executing a task. A worker would take its arm, move it to pick up an object in the assembly line and move its arm again to execute a specific action on that object, like fitting it on an overhead moving chassis.

Over these 6 years Baxter has improved leading to the creation of Sayer, gaining the capability to learn by observing what a worker was doing and then duplicating the movements. Later versions were able to communicate with other workers in the team and to share activities with them.

Rethinking Robotics pioneered the idea of a robot becoming part of a production team, collaborating with other robots and other human workers. This required advanced capabilities, sophisticated image recognition and an artificial intelligence that could manage unplanned situations. Overall it was reasonably affordable with a price of 22,000$, in the very lower range for industrial robots.

The market, however, did not buy into this new concept of mixed human-robot teams and the number of Baxter sold has not been enough to turn sufficient revenues for Rethinking Robotics.

In a way it reminds me of Apple Newton, a very advanced idea that could not win the market, mostly because technology was not mature (and performant). Now tablets are everywhere and it is easy to see how Newton was a forerunner.

I bet that Baxter/Sayer will turn out to be a forerunner as well. Later in the next decade we will have sufficient artificial intelligence at an affordable price point and that will fuel collaborative robots, aka cobots (or co-bots).

According to MarketsAndMarkets collaborative robots will grow from 710M$ market in 2018 to over 12 B$ in 2025, fuelled by improved human machine interface and artificial intelligence empowering them to imitate and learn from humans.

Although Europe ids currently leading the pack in cobots, thanks to heavy investment in Industry 4.0, the Asia Pacific area is expected to take the lead in the next decade. By far cobots are expected to grow faster in the pick and place area, with load capacity around 5kg (which makes sense since these will be relatively small cobots, safer to operate in an open environment).

An informative roadmap of cobots application in different areas can be found in the Smart Advanced Manufacturing Technology Roadmap.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.

One comment

  1. I received a comment pointing out that the first cobot was UR5, by Universal Robotics, back in 2008. That is correct. UR5 was designed to operate along with human workers with no protection to separate it from the humans. Nevertheless I still consider Baxter the first collaborative robots for the effort made by its designers to humanize its shape, without turning it into an antropomorphic robot, just equipping it with a screen suggesting a head displaying eyes to convey feelings….
    On the contrary, UR5 was a robotic arm, it could not be perceived as a team plyer, nor was it designed to be perceived that way…