Sawyer rethink robotics
Sawyer

Meet Sawyer. It is the newest robot on the block designed to speed up automation in factories by taking on tasks that once relied on humans’ manual dexterity and good eyesight.

The machine is one of two new “collaborative” robots, or co-bots, launched this week that are part of a new generation of affordable lightweight robots that are unlocking new markets and applications beyond automotive and semiconductor manufacturing, where robots have been a mainstay for decades.

Robot companies have been rushing to develop co-bots, which can work side-by-side with employees rather than behind a safety cage, as they look to capitalise on a growing trend by manufacturers to turn to technology to compete amid rising wage costs and labour shortages.

Unveiled on Thursday, Sawyer is made by US-based Rethink Robotics, which already builds a dual-arm humanoid robot known as Baxter. The single-armed Sawyer is more accurate, faster and smaller than Baxter, enabling it to automate a wider range of tasks such as machine tending and circuit board testing in the electronics industry. It can also carry a larger weight. Baxter has largely been used for packing purposes in factories and for academic research.

Denmark’s Universal Robots, one of the earliest manufacturers of co-bots, also revealed its third machine this week. Its latest model, dubbed UR3, is a smaller table-top machine that can be used to assemble, polish, glue and screw a range of components. Its robots are used to pack millions of eggs and can also be found in Volkswagen’s Salzgitter engine plant in Germany. Last year Volkswagen said it plans to use robots to cope with a shortage of new workers caused by retiring baby boomers.

Dan Kara, robotics practice director at ABI Research, believes the latest models will help boost the number of collaborative robots being used in factories. “The dexterity of the new generation of co-operative robots is improving . . . and they have the added advantage of working safely and effectively in workspaces occupied by humans,” says Mr Kara.

Lightweight collaborative robots are cheaper, more dexterous, easier to move between tasks and do not require specialist programming skills. Many of them can be taught new moves by simply taking the robot arm and moving it to show it what to do.

$29,000

price tag for the new Sawyer robot

Sawyer will be marketed for $29,000, compared with a six figure sum for an industrial robot. Universal Robots sells its flexible, lightweight robot arms for between €20,000 to €30,000.

This has helped make automation more accessible for small and medium-sized businesses that previously could not afford the expensive heavyweight traditional industrial robots or did not consider them economical for smaller production volumes or contract manufacturing.

Many manufacturers are using co-bots to assist their human workers, as well as relieving them of ergonomically unfavourable work. Workers are typically redeployed to higher value tasks that robots cannot do, which require more skill and understanding, or retrained to manage the robots.

Robot makers, such as Spanish company PAL Robotics, are also developing moving co-bots. Rich Walker, managing director of Shadow Robots, a British SME that makes robot hands, believes these will further boost take-up of co-bots. “I think that these will bring real change, because they offer the possibility of acting in many different places as they can move from one location to another so they can fetch something and use it,” he says.

Rethink Robotics
Baxter

Another trend benefiting sales of co-bots is the adoption of automation by Chinese manufacturers. The country, once the manual labour “workshop of the world”, became the largest buyer of industrial robots in 2013 as it attempts to drive productivity gains after being hit by rising wage costs and labour shortages.

The country bought one in five robots sold globally in 2013, overtaking tech-savvy Japan for the first time, according to figures by the International Federation of Robotics.

Jim Lawton, chief marketing officer at Rethink Robotics, says China is likely to be a big market for its Sawyer robot. “China is being particularly hit by labour shortages and labour rates. We had one customer who recently went through the Chinese new year and 60 per cent of his employees did not return,” he says.

Rethink has trialled Sawyer with several manufacturing companies, including Jabil, a US-based electronics company. It has received hundreds of pre-orders for the robot and plans to launch it widely next January.

But despite the excitement over human-machine collaboration, sales of co-bots are a small proportion of the 179,000 industrial robots sold each year. The majority of robot sales still continue to be the traditional, large caged machines.

Universal Robots has sold about 3,500 of its lightweight co-bots since 2008, while only a few hundred Baxter’s have been sold since it launched in late 2012. However, Rethink expects the market for Sawyer to be 10 times what it is for Baxter because of the wider range of tasks it can perform. The company raised $26.6m of funding in January from investors including Goldman Sachs and GE Ventures as part of plans to expand globally.

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