sawyer. the collaborative robot serious about manufacturing

in rethinking robotics by Jim Lawton

Manufacturing is not easy. Day after day, there are hard problems to solve. How can we deliver more to our customers for less? How do we drive productivity and efficiency, while expanding flexibility and agility? How do we ensure our employees are empowered and creative, engaged in increasing value to our customers?

After more than 20 years working with and for manufacturers, I can tell you – these topics resonate. But I don’t find companies sitting on the sidelines, lamenting the challenges, slogging from day to day. Just the opposite. Manufacturers are stepping up, evaluating innovative technologies, and looking for new and better ways to drive value.

In fact, there’s been a lot of news recently around collaborative robots in manufacturing. There’s an energy and urgency around this market as companies like Jabil and GE accelerate converting a vision for the factory of the future into reality.  At Rethink Robotics, we are listening to our constituents, partnering with them, and creating solutions to enable their vision. Sawyer is a smart, collaborative robot serious about manufacturing.

We started shipping our first robot in 2013. “Baxter” was soon recognized as the “face of collaborative robots.” Our early entry into the market gave us a unique window into the needs of customers. And as we contemplated Sawyer, we worked intently with many of our existing customers as well as new prospective customers, both here in the US and in China and Europe. What learnings proved most compelling to Sawyer’s architecture?

We demonstrated the role that software plays in delivering customer value propositions. By enabling faster innovation and providing a platform that scales deployments, customers recognize ROI in less than a year. By providing a foundation for advanced analytics, customers capture new, actionable insights into product and process improvement opportunities.

We learned that the more we do to reduce the cognitive load to the manufacturing employee, the better. We are committed to building robots that make the easy simple and make the hard possible. Committed to building robots that are straightforward and fast to deploy in environments that are changing at an ever-increasing pace. This is why we embedded our vision system into the robot. For most applications, our customers should not have to spend the time and expertise to figure out how to plumb the camera to get the job done.

But perhaps most importantly, we learned that what is important to customers are robots that can just do the job, simply, predictability and with minimal effort. 90% of tasks in manufacturing today are not automated. But many of these tasks can be with collaborative robots.

As we developed Sawyer, we researched and documented hundreds of tasks at dozens of manufacturers in several industries. We focused on tasks that could not be performed at all, or could not be performed cost effectively by traditional automation. We looked at task specifications, prevalence and common themes. We captured in detail the specifications and evaluated each task against the capabilities of this new type of smart, collaborative robot.

Sawyer at work

Ultimately, we chose to focus Sawyer on machine tending applications, and inspection and test applications. In many manufacturing operations, these tasks can comprise more than 40% of the labor content. We embarked on an entirely new joint design for Sawyer that leverages Rethink Robotics’ proprietary work in series elastic actuators and a new set of control algorithms to maximize the performance of this new joint design. The result is a collaborative robot that is smaller, faster, and more precise, with better force sensitivity and higher payload – making Sawyer ideally suited for these customer tasks.

Feedback on Sawyer from customers has been overwhelmingly positive. Ranging from “this is the robot we need,” to “can I have that one you just showed me,” manufacturers are embracing Sawyer and what it will do for them.

Manufacturing is a serious business. And at Rethink Robotics we introduced Sawyer, a serious robot. Because in the end, we will succeed if – and only if – our customers succeed.

On March 19, 2015, Rethink Robotics announced Sawyer. Limited availability begins this summer.


About the Author

Jim Lawton

Jim had a choice upon graduating from Tufts University – chase a dream as a concert pianist or become part of the inaugural Leaders for Manufacturing Program at MIT. He chose the latter– dedicating his career to developing and delivering innovative solutions that improve the business of manufacturing. Internally at HP, and then at breakthrough start-ups in e-commerce, inventory optimization and supply chain risk management, Jim’s never once looked back. His charter today: capture the power of data and analytics to push the standard for world-class manufacturing higher—once again.

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