Drives and Controls Magazine
Baxter robot gets a precision, one-armed brother
Published:  19 March, 2015

Rethink Robotics, the US developer of the human-friendly, twin-armed robot called Baxter, has announced a new device: a single-arm, high-performance robot aimed at precision tasks, such as machine tending and circuit board testing, that have traditionally been difficult to automate using conventional industrial robots.

The new robot, called Sawyer, weighs 19kg, can carry 4kg, operates with seven degrees of freedom, and has a 1m reach. It can manoeuvre into tight spaces and will work in cells designed for humans. 

Sawyer, which has a base price of $29,000, offers the same safety, compliance and usability characteristics as Baxter – including the iconic “face” screen, embedded sensors and a train-by-demonstration user interface – while occupying a smaller footprint and offering high-precision performance for tasks that need agility and flexibility. It runs on the same Intera software platform that powers Baxter, and can adapt dynamically to real-world conditions and integrate into existing work cells.

According to Rethink Robotics, Baxter and Sawyer can together address many of the estimated 90% of manufacturing tasks that cannot be feasibly automated today using traditional robots.

High-resolution force sensors embedded at each joint, support compliant motion control, which allows the robot to “feel” its way into fixtures or machines, even when parts or positions vary. This enables an adaptive precision that is claimed to be unique and allows Sawyer to work in semi-structured environments.

An embedded two-camera vision system consists of one camera in the robot’s “head” to perform applications requiring a wide field of view, and a second Cognex camera with a built-in light source in its wrist for precision vision applications. The vision system allows dynamic re-orientation, and over time will support advanced functions built into the Cognex technology, such as barcode scanning and object recognition.

Rethink Robotics calims that its Sawyer robot will handle precision tasks that are difficult for traditional robots

“With Baxter, we introduced the concept of robots and people working together on the plant floor,” says Rethink Robotics’ president and CEO, Scott Eckert. “With Sawyer, we have taken that relationship to the next level, with a high-performance robot that opens the door for many new applications that have never been good candidates for automation. As we continue to redefine this industry, we also continue to give manufacturers new ways of adding efficiency and flexibility into their operations.”

Dan Kara, robotics practice director at ABI Research, describes Sawyer as “a very compelling technology that has the potential to once again change the way manufacturers think about their automation infrastructure”.

“With the introduction of Baxter, Rethink fundamentally changed the conversation in the robotics industry and pioneered a new way of thinking about automation,” he points out. “Today, the collaborative concept has been accepted, the value has been proven, and more companies are looking to standardise globally on these solutions. Sawyer incorporates advanced technology from the Baxter platform, but is different in other fundamental aspects, making it suitable for wholly new classes of applications.”

The Sawyer robot will be available initially in North America, Europe, China and Japan. It is currently being field-tested by several large manufacturing companies in those regions. It will be released with limited availability in the summer of 2015, with general availability targeted for later in the year.