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Start-up bets robot will transform US factories

Last week’s splashiest product announcement was the iPhone 5, introduced by Apple in San Francisco. But this week’s could very well be a humanoid robot that a Boston company is unveiling on Tuesday. Its name is Baxter, and though it will cost north of $20,000, the Boston company that developed it, Rethink Robotics, asserts it could change manufacturing in the same radical way the iPhone changed the mobile phone business.

A big part of Rethink’s pitch is that Baxter will be a friendly robot, one that won’t obliterate manufacturing jobs here but make it economical for manufacturing sent offshore to be done domestically once again. To which I must say: Really?

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No start-up in Boston has a pedigree that can match Rethink’s. The company was founded by Rodney Brooks, a renowned robotics researcher who was one of the three founders of iRobot Corp., the publicly traded maker of robots that roam the battlefield and the living room floor. Rethink’s first investor was Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. Rethink’s chief executive Scott Eckert was responsible for launching the e-commerce business at Dell Inc., the Texas computer maker, in the mid-1990s.

What the company has developed over the past four years is a robot with a camera for a head, two arms, and a torso, but no legs. (Baxter perches on a mobile stand, but can’t move around on its own.) Three things make it unique. First, says Frank Tobe, editor of the industry newsletter The Robot Report, it can be trained to do tasks by having a human move its arms through the desired motions, similar to how a golf pro might teach a student to swing. No complex programming required.

Second, thanks to its vision and proximity sensors, Baxter can work safely next to humans on an assembly line. During demos, Eckert likes to put his head in the path of one of the robot’s arms to show that will stop before bumping him. Finally, there’s the price. Traditional industrial robots can cost $100,000 or more.

“The kind of industrial robots we’ve seen up to now have been very expensive, difficult to program, and limited in what they can do,” says Dan Kara, an analyst for trade publication Robotics Business Review who has seen a demo of Baxter. “While what Rethink has today is very much a version 1.0 product, it is a game-changer in a lot of ways. Just the idea that you could have it do one task for a short production run, then shift it to a different task is something brand new.”

Over time, Rethink hopes to cultivate an ecosystem of software and hardware developers that will create apps and accessories to enable Baxter to perform a wider range of jobs (similar to the ecosystem that sprang up around Apple’s iPhone). A vision app, for instance, might help it spot flawed widgets and pluck them from a conveyor belt, or a specialized hand attachment might enable it to laser-engrave designs onto metal.

“We see lots of applications in plastics and metal manufacturing, and consumer packaged goods manufacturing, just to name a couple of early targets,” Eckert told me in June. “And we think the majority of our customers will have multiple Rethink robots doing multiple different tasks within their environments.” (The company refused to give me a look at the robot, or grant new interviews in advance of Tuesday’s launch.) About 75 percent of the robot’s value, Eckert added, consists of components made in the United States. Baxter is also assembled here.

Rethink so far has raised $62 million. But it has a big job ahead, convincing prospective customers that Baxter can make factories or warehouses more efficient, and proving that a small company in Boston can support an army of robots deployed around the world.

Eckert talks about Baxter as a product that will “unleash the productivity of a broad class of manufacturing workers,” similar to the way personal computers made office workers more productive.

But others are chasing that same vision, big companies like the Swiss conglomerate ABB, already a major supplier of industrial robots, and start-ups like Redwood Robotics of California, run by Aaron Edsinger (who earned his PhD at MIT under Brooks, the Rethink founder).

Rethink will enjoy the advantage of being the first to introduce a product, though.

Could a new wave of less-expensive, more flexible industrial robots like Baxter change the course of US manufacturing, which lost 3.2 million jobs in the last 10 years? Just about everyone associated with Rethink makes that case, including Paul Maeder, cofounder of Highland Capital Partners in Cambridge, one of Rethink’s backers. While companies today seek cost advantages through cheap labor overseas, Maeder says, Rethink could kick off a “new productivity race” in which the companies that adopt the most sophisticated robots win.

There are plenty of reasons why companies might bring back manufacturing to the United States, including lower transportation costs and quicker turnaround times, observes Andrew McAfee, a principal research scientist at MIT’s Center for Digital Business.

“If Rethink can make factories more productive domestically, that encourages more domestic production” says McAfee, whose recent book, “Race Against the Machine,” explores technology’s impact on employment.

More domestic production would be good for the economy, but it probably wouldn’t spark a boom in assembly-line hiring, McAfee cautions. “Will we start employing more people in manufacturing?” he says. “I think that’s extremely optimistic.”

And of course, there’s nothing to prevent Chinese factories from purchasing these robots.

If Baxter lands in factories around the world, it’ll be a big win for a Boston company and the robotics cluster here. But once the robot reports for work, it may not have many human co-workers keeping it company. In the scenario Rethink paints, they’ll be doing “higher value” tasks elsewhere on the factory floor. And in the less rosy scenario, well, let’s just say they will not be forming a Baxter fan club.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.omc. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.

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