Universal Robots snags 20 Rethink refugees after bot maker goes belly up

A mind is a terrible thing to waste, they say, and in the aftermath of Rethink Robotics shutting down last month there were plenty of good minds looking avoid that fate. Fortunately Universal Robots has picked up 20 of the engineers and others who contributed to Rethink’s well-liked but ultimately ill-fated Baxter and Sawyer robots.

Rethink was an early entrant into the collaborative robotics space, and the two-handed Baxter and its one-handed successor Sawyer, with their animated eyes and smooth, safe movements, became exemplars of a co-robotic future that never really arrived.

Universal Robots, on the other hand, is a much larger company that’s been around for considerably longer, manufacturing and supporting a number of popular collaborative robots all over the world (though not traditional large industrial robots, as I first wrote here). It was purchased by Teradyne for $350 million in 2015, but is still operating more or less on its own — sounds like it was a UR decision to pick up the Rethink employees. The company will also take over Rethink’s Boston headquarters, but won’t be picking up any of the company’s IP or inventory.

Rethink’s focus was on small scale custom operations: a small business that could semi-automate itself by having a Sawyer perform some monotonous manual labor like packing boxes or aligning parts on the conveyor belt. That meant a necessity not just for safety and agility but the ability to be quickly retrained on the fly by someone other than a trained roboticist. The innovation of having a “face” may seem farcical in some ways but if humans and robots are to work together nonverbal communication is critical and that’s one way to do it.

All this is just to say that the people in Rethink were working on, and solving, serious problems in robotics, and the company closing its doors doesn’t change that. So it’s nice to see that at least some (there were around a hundred employees at Rethink) will be able to continue in their pursuit of those problems.