The HAHN Group scooped up the IP and trademarks for the Sawyer collaborative robot and Intera software less than one month after Rethink Robotics Inc. shut down in October 2018. The German automation and robotics specialist, which has 30-plus years of automation experience, recently gave The Robot Report an exclusive look at how it plans to revitalize the Sawyer brand around the world.
HAHN Robotics, part of the robotics division of the HAHN Group and the largest global distributor of Sawyer, knows the cobot inside and out, including its strengths and weaknesses. In January 2019, Philipp Unterhalt was appointed managing director of the HAHN Group. He has been interim CEO of Rethink Robotics GmbH since November 2018. While he did not mention specific timelines, Unterhalt outlined the company’s three-step plan:
- Refurbish Rethink Robotics’ inventory of Sawyer robots and the 2400 units in the field.
- Develop a new and improved Sawyer cobot with “less noise, higher speed and better accuracy.”
- Develop a family of Rethink robots with varying payloads and reaches to meet market demands.
Let’s delve into each of the aforementioned steps.
Refurbishing current Sawyer cobots
Rethink Robotics Inc. had performance issues with Sawyer and its older brother Baxter. The Robot Report spoke with a dozen former Rethink integrators who said the series elastic actuators (SEAs) caused the performance issues. Those will be swapped out in future versions. Corun USA has the exclusive rights to the remaining Baxter robots in the world.
“Going forward, the reliability of [Sawyer] from a hardware perspective will be addressed,” said Unterhalt. “We already have a list of things we want to do.”
To refurbish the current Sawyer cobots, Unterhalt said, “there are some tiny things that need to be adjusted to improve the product.” Sawyer’s actuators sometimes had problems. To fix that, Unterhalt said they will be replaced with sealed actuators.
Rethink Robotics GmbH also wants to swap out screws that rusted too easily and created problems with Sawyer’s encoders, as another example.
Unterhalt told The Robot Report that Rethink Robotics GmbH has developed the pre-requirements for the rollout of the refurbishment plan by setting up service hubs in Asia, Europe, and the U.S. He said upgrades should start being performed in the coming weeks.
“We’re moving as fast as we can to make this happen. It’s not only in our client’s interest, but also in our interest,” he said. “October wasn’t that long ago, and we have achieved a lot since then. But to do it the right way, it takes time.”
“Our idea is to improve Sawyer with the experience we have from being an integrator, distributor, and expert in robotics,” added Unterhalt. “We have interest from distributors who are saying, ‘We want our inventory upgraded as well.'”
New Sawyer cobots to come
Unterhalt was understandably vague about the new version and family of Sawyer cobots that will be coming. He said there is no timetable for new models yet, but he would like to release the second version of Sawyer first while simultaneously working on the family of cobots behind the scenes.
“The important thing is we know how to do this from a process perspective,” Unterhalt said. “We know how long it takes. We don’t have any dates in the plan, but what we know is we want to develop a solid version and test it internally and not in the market. This is crucial to meet quality expectations.”
It sounds like Sawyer’s well-known red exterior and animated face won’t be disappearing from future versions. Unterhalt said Sawyer’s look is a key differentiator from its competitors.
“One of our clients compared how different cobots hold people’s attention,” he recalled. “One well-known competitor had 20 seconds of attention, while Sawyer had 120 seconds of attention.
“What does that mean? It is about entry barrier. If you’re the managing director of the plant, you have to care about your people. The friendly face of Sawyer provides a difference to the employees. Sawyer isn’t seen as a dumb machine, he’s seen as a colleague, as an individual. We want to rely on this difference to overcome prejudice and reservation.”
Hahn reactivates Sawyer’s salesforce
Of course, the first step to make all this happen is to reactivate Sawyer’s sales network. To do so, Rethink Robotics GmbH recently held its first meeting in Germany, bringing together 39 former distributors from 26 countries.
“I was impressed by what I saw at the meeting in Frankfurt,” Dan O’Brien, president of Gibson Engineering, told The Robot Report via email. Norwood, Mass.-based Gibson Engineering signed on with Rethink in 2010 and stuck with it until the very end.
“The most successful Rethink distributor [Hahn Robotics], with deep roots in automation and manufacturing, is now the owner of all of the IP and assets,” said O’Brien. “They’ve already determined how to shore up the quality of the units which have been manufactured, and I’m sure moving forward, they will leverage the parts of the IP portfolio that offer a competitive advantage.”
O’Brien said it was apparent at the distributor meeting that the Rethink Robotics brand hadn’t been damaged as much in other markets as it has in the U.S.
“I think it is possible, with the right mix of support for the product already in the market, and an aggressive development schedule, that the Rethink brand in the U.S. can be repaired,” O’Brien wrote. “One of the advantages Rethink [Robotics GmbH] has in the U.S. is that they understand the channel, which is something not all of the cobot companies entering the market can say.”
HAHN Group’s shareholder RSBG owned a 10 percent stake in Rethink Robotics Inc., and Unterhalt was responsible for the investment. The new shareholding situation is not looking for an exit at all. Therefore, the company can concentrate on long-term development, he said.
This is much more comfortable and sustainable than the former situation, where Rethink Robotics Inc. was forced to cut corners and not address some well-known quality and performance issues with Sawyer, as Unterhalt indicated.
“Our promise is to combine the [Intera] software with German engineering, process, and integration know-how. To get Sawyer into the middle of the industry, and to make sure it is really addressing the clients’ problems, we don’t need to build the fanciest, best-looking robot in the world. We want to bring the best solution to the problem for the client. That’s the core of what we’re working on.”
And that’s the core Rethink Robotics Inc. got wrong.