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    Robot pioneer Rethink shuts down

    Rethink was founded in 2008 by Rodney Brooks (left), a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who also had cofounded iRobot.
    Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File 2013
    Rethink was founded in 2008 by Rodney Brooks (left), a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who also had cofounded iRobot.

    Rethink Robotics led the way in building robots that could work safely alongside humans. But when it came to selling those robots, Boston-based Rethink came up second best.

    On Wednesday, without warning, Rethink shut its doors, after a deal to acquire the company fell through.

    “We thought that we had a deal that we were going to be able to close,” said Rethink chief executive Scott Eckert. But the buyer backed out. Eckert declined to identify the company that had broken off the acquisition.

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    Eckert said Rethink ran low on cash as sales of the company’s Baxter and Sawyer robots fell short of expectations.

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    “We got out a little early with a very, very innovative product, and unfortunately did not get the commercial success that we expected to get,” he said.

    Rethink was a pioneer in developing collaborative robots, or “cobots,” which are designed to work side-by-side with humans. Their software makes them easy to program, even by workers with no training in robotics, and they come with sensors and software to prevent them from accidentally harming nearby humans.

    The company had a powerful pedigree in the robotics world, and one of the world’s most powerful businessmen behind it. It was founded in 2008 by Rodney Brooks, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who also had cofounded iRobot, the Bedford-based maker of robotic home cleaning machines like the Roomba vacuum cleaner.

    Rethink’s top robots, Baxter and Sawyer, have long, articulated arms designed to make them perform highly repetitive rote tasks, such as parts assembly or packaging products for shipment.

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    But Frank Tobe, cofounder of Robo Global, an investment firm specializing in robotics companies, said the company’s cash crisis was spawned when a major order from China failed to materialize.

    He said Rethink customized its Sawyer robot for the Chinese market, but then the distributor didn’t follow through on the deal, leaving Rethink with unsold robots and unpaid bills. Tobe said it might be due to the tit-for-tat trade war between China and the United States, or because of a general slowdown in the Chinese economy. Either way, Rethink “just ran out of money in the waiting game,” Tobe said.

    Rethink was also challenged by strong rivals such as Universal Robots, a Danish company owned by North Reading-based Teradyne Inc. Last month, Universal announced the sale of its 25,000th collaborative robot.

    “It’s tough to compete with Universal,” said Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation, a Michigan-based trade group representing companies in robotics and related industries. “They’ve done a really good job of building out their ecosystem . . . there’s a lot of these companies who’ve said we want to develop products specifically with Universal.”

    By contrast, said Burnstein, “Baxter maybe didn’t do as well in the marketplace [and] Sawyer was maybe playing catch-up.”

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    Universal Robots wasn’t Rethink’s only competitor. Kuka, Fanuc, ABB, and Yaskawa, which make giant industrial robots, have realized that cobots aren’t just a passing fad, and have entered the market in recent years, said John Santagate, robotics research director at tech research firm IDC Inc.

    “When those other guys started to come up with collaborative robotics, they’ve got a much bigger footprint [than Rethink],” said Santagate. The giants have plenty of cash and an established customer base, making it far harder for Rethink to gain a foothold.

    Eckert said that Rethink will begin selling off its patent portfolio and other intellectual property, and said the company’s 91 employees expect to be in strong demand from other robotics firms.

    Eckert said that Rethink’s failure is no reflection on the overall health of the robotics industry.

    “I think history will say we changed industrial robots for ever,” said Eckert. “We showed the world that robots could safely work side by side with people.”

    Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.