Rethink Robotics (formerly Heartland Robotics), a U.S. start-up founded by Rodney Brooks (former MIT professor who later co-founded iRobot), is finally launching their low-cost industrial robot. Originally the company was aiming at a price of just $5,000, but that proved a bit ambitious as the final cost is $22,000 USD. That’s still incredibly cheap for a dual-armed robot when you consider that some robot manipulators (not including the actual robot arms), like those from Barrett, cost upwards of $80,000. This price point could bust the door wide open on robotics for industries that typically don’t use the technology.
Take Kawada Industries’ NEXTAGE robot (similar in size and functionality) for comparison – it costs between 7~8 million Yen ($89,000~$102,000). You could buy four Baxters for that! Unlike other industrial robots, these two can work next to people without safety barriers and are only meant to handle small, lightweight objects: Baxter has a rated payload of just 5 lbs (6.6 lbs for the NEXTAGE). This makes them ideal for material handling tasks like pick-and-place operations and light assembly jobs like those at Foxconn that tend to be mind-numbingly tedious.
One of the primary benefits offered by the Baxter system is its ease of use: the robot can be trained by demonstration, eliminating the need for expensive and time-consuming programming. You simply take the robot’s arm and guide it to the general area where it will pick up objects and do the same for where it needs to place them. The robot’s vision system allows it to intelligently compensate for the random placement of objects in front of it. As a result, the company claims the robot has a form of common sense and can be up and running in about an hour.
Rethink Robotics isn’t the only company with its eyes set on the dual-armed manufacturing work that has, for the most part, been dominated by Yaskawa Motoman. Germany’s ABB is developing a similar robot called FRIDA that is small enough to be lifted with just one arm. However, it’s questionable that Frida will be able to compete with the low cost of Rethink Robotics’ flagship product.