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Rethink Robotics hopes to do for manufacturing what the PC did for the office

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  By Rick Nelson, Executive Editor, August 26, 2012

Rethink Robotics Inc. is poised to introduce a new generation of robots that will improve productivity in manufacturing environments. The versatile and flexible robots will be capable of autonomously sensing and adapting to their environment while being easy to buy, train, and deploy. And, the company says, they will be much less expensive than traditional industrial robots.

The company plans to introduce its first product in a few weeks, and New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman was just given a sneak peek—on the condition that he not reveal unique features such as the robot's "disruptive" price point. As Friedman recounts in the Sunday Times, "I did something I’ve never done before: I programmed a robot to perform the simple task of moving widgets from one place to another."

The company initially took the name Heartland Robotics to emphasize the firm's commitment to keep manufacturing jobs in America. On taking the Rethink Robotics moniker in June, president and CEO Scott Eckert said in a press release, "Though we changed to a name that better represents the breadth and impact of our vision, we remain solidly committed to the mission reflected in our previous name: keeping manufacturing jobs in America. In fact, the robot we will announce later this year will be sourced and manufactured almost entirely in the USA."

I reported earlier on the expectation that the adoption of robots could add more jobs then it destroys, and that's in keeping with the vision of Rethink Robotics, which aims to do for manufacturing workers what the PC did for office workers. "Just as businesses had to completely rethink ways to use computers when the PC was first introduced, they will want to take advantage of opportunities created by this new class of robot,” said Rod Brooks, chairman, founder, and CTO of Rethink Robotics as well as cofounder of iRobot. "With our robots, businesses will have the opportunity to rethink manufacturing, rethink automation, and rethink outsourcing."

Brooks explained to Friedman that traditional industrial robots are fixed and require a skilled engineer to program them to do one repeatable task. In contrast, said Brooks, "Our robot is low-cost, easily programmable, not fixed, and not dangerous. We were in a small plastics company the other day, and the owner said he is using the robot for two hours to do one task and then rolling it over to do another. With our robots, you teach them about the specific task you want done, and when you are done with that, you program another one."

The goal of Rethink Robotics may be to keep manufacturing jobs in the U.S., but the development team is multinational. Writes Friedman, "The Rethink design team includes Bruce Blumberg, the product manager of the Apple LaserWriter—as well as 75 other experts from Russia, Georgia, Venezuela, Egypt, Australia, India, Israel, Portugal, Britain, Sri Lanka, the United States, and China. 'It is all made in America,' says Brooks, but by 'the best talent' gathered 'from around the world.'"

Based in the Innovation District of Boston, the company in June announced that it had secured $30 million in Series C financing. The funding round was led by Sigma Partners, with participation from all prior investors (Charles River Ventures, Highland Capital Partners, Sigma Partners, and Bezos Expeditions) as well as a new investor, Draper Fisher Jurvetson.

At that time, investors indicated their enthusiasm for an on-shoring wave the company hopes to take advantage of. "Rethink Robotics has made great strides toward completing their flagship product, an entirely new category of manufacturing robot," said Paul Flanagan managing director at Sigma Partners. "Their timing could not be better, as recently businesses have expressed powerful reasons that they want to re-shore their manufacturing operations."

"We are excited to join Rethink Robotics as they create robot products that implement a remarkably compelling market vision—one that will overturn conventional wisdom about how and where manufacturing should be done," said Steve Jurvetson, managing director at Draper Fisher Jurvetson.

See related story, "IPC Study Predicts On-Shoring Impact."


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