Quick, name some famous robots: Robby the Robot from the classic 1950s film "Forbidden Planet." Rosie, the maid from "The Jetsons." Will Robinson calling out "Help, Robot" in "Lost in Space."
Maybe Baxter was also on your list. Sadly, Baxter has moved into the past tense, along with those other celebrity robots, since Rethink Robotics Inc. of Boston closed its doors on Oct. 3.
Nobody expected it. Certainly not Baxter and his brother, Sawyer. (Actually, the sex of Rethink's collaborative robots is ambiguous, like the character Pat on "Saturday Night Live." That's part of Baxter's quirky charm.)
While it may be tempting to mock Baxter and Sawyer, Rethink Robotics played a key role in making collaborative robots, known as "cobots," popular. The goofy face was strangely enduring. If you got too close, Baxter would raise an eyebrow and look at you. Those changing expressions made a robot actualy, well, fun. And far less intimidating than the hulking welding robots that automakers adopted decades ago, sparks shooting everywhere, autoworkers seeing their jobs disappearing.
Baxter and Sawyer were there to do mundane tasks. They smiled at you, as if to say, "I'm not here to take your job. C'mon, you can work right beside me." They humanized automation.
Now, we imagine Baxters everywhere are frowning, animated tears falling softly from their eyes at the prospect that no more Baxters will be made. Then they take a deep breath and get back to work.
Cobots from Rethink Robotics found a home in custom injection molding, and, if Rethink could have stayed in business, we're betting that plastics processing would have been the company's biggest market. They seemed perfect for picking up molded parts coming down a conveyor, sorting them and arranging them in a box. Cameras in the robot arms promised more exotic uses, like vision inspection and assembly.
Press reports listed several reasons why Rethink Robotics suddenly closed, including a failed sale of the company or a cash squeeze when a big order from China fell apart. (Are there retaliatory tariffs from China on overly friendly robots?)
Basic economics likely played the biggest role. With the robots priced at only around $20,000, Rethink would have to sell a huge number of Baxters and Sawyers to make enough money to sustain the business. The low price was a blessing — a good number of plastics processors bought them — but also a curse.
Some observers also say that Rethink was too slow to sell the robots internationally, focusing to much on the United States. Certainly global competition has been growing. A Danish cobot maker, Universal Robots, has made a big impact in plastics factories. Bigger companies have jumped into the collaborative robot arena, well-known names like Kuka, ABB, Fanuc.
But give Baxter credit for really moving the collaborative robot out of the engineering laboratory and onto the factory floor and beyond: Baxter became known even to people outside the world of manufacturing.
Everybody knows the robot with the face.
Bill Bregar is a senior staff reporter at Plastics News. Follow him @Machinerybeat25