Rethink Robotics has created Sawyer, a simple smart bot that’s easy to train; Tepco’s robot recently died when sent into Fukushima’s nuclear reactor. Sawyer looks more like a Pixar character than a warehouse robot (via Rethink Robotics)


Huge warehouses have a lot of supply and demand to keep up with. Think of an Amazon warehouse; a lot of work goes into making sure you get that late night purchase on time. But as of late, more warehouses are looking to bring in smart technology to make their daily output more efficient. Warehouse robots already exist, but they’re often clunky and difficult to reprogram. Tech company Rethink Robotics is looking to make warehouse robots simpler without sacrificing efficiency with their new bot Sawyer.


Sawyer is a one-armed robot with a tablet for a face that’s easy to program new and custom tasks in the workplace thanks to its Intera 5 software update. This software not only allows Sawyer to be programmed for different tasks, but it also lets the robot learn new things by demonstration. Need the bot to reach something on a top shelf? You just have to move its arm around and trigger different components by hand, like its wrist camera. Just show it what it’s supposed to do and Sawyer will remember the steps and copy them. It’s far easier than spending a day or more entering in complicated code to get the bot to perform a new job.


It doesn’t take very long to train Sawyer either. Whereas other robots can take up to a day or even a week to learn new tasks, Sawyer learns its duties in just more than an hour. Since it’s adaptable, it cuts down the cost for warehouses and cuts down on how much the amount of time people need to spend on a certain task. The robot also ensures efficiency and improved product quality since it leaves little room for human error. According to Rethink Robotics CEO Scott Eckert believes the Intera 5 makes Sawyer the first smart robot “that can orchestrate the entire work cell, removing areas of friction, and opening new and affordable automation possibilities.”


The bot is already employed by several manufacturers including MC Schramberg, who is using the bot to improve its deployment time of their product. With the easy training, the bots now run 24 hours a day, six days a week. Another company, Tunthill Plastics Group, is using Sawyer to help pick parts from a conveyor belt and place them into a machine via communication with a computer numeric control (CNC). This warehouse also has the bots running 24 hours a day, five days a week. With these results, it sounds like smart factories are the way to go. But as another company learned, just because they’re easy to train, doesn’t mean they’re perfect.


The Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) recently sent in a robot inside Fukushima’s nuclear reactor to find the location of melted uranium fuel and cleanup inside the reactor. The bot hardly got a chance to finish the job since the radiation inside the nuclear reactor were so high, the robot had to be pulled out because it died on the job. Two of the camera began going fuzzy, blacked out, and started making a lot of noise after spending two hours removing debris. According to Tepco, the robot suffered 650 Sieverts of radiation per hour, which is enough to kill a human instantly. The team has a second robot on standby to finish the job, but they haven’t deployed it yet. They want to study this outcome before sending in another machine.


This marked the first time a robot entered the reactor since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, which badly damaged the plant and caused high levels of radiation inside. Just goes to show no robot is perfect or prepared for every situation on the job. Hopefully, these warehouse bots don’t suffer such an extreme fate.


Have a story tip? Message me at: cabe(at)element14(dot)com