Rethink Robotics’ Intera 5 Simplifies Complex Programming, Extends Collaboration to the Work-Cell, and Prepares for Industry 4.0

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2Q 2017 | IN-4524

Rethink Robotics’ Intera 5 simplifies work-cell connectivity and collaboration, and greatly simplifies the programming of complex applications requiring extremely accurate movement and highly-precise, adaptive force control. It is also a functional enabler for production lines that are completely integrated and tightly synchronized, with processes that are optimized autonomously and in real time.

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Two Years and 30 Engineers in the Making


On February 7 (2017), Boston-based Rethink Robotics announced the release of Intera 5, a critical, two-year (and 30 engineers) reworking of the company’s foundational software platform for its Sawyer collaborative robot. Intera 5, which is based on a robot operating system (ROS), builds upon earlier versions of Intera, improving its train-by-demonstration capabilities and further abstracting common programming functions. More importantly, with Intera 5 the collaborative aspects of Rethink Robotics’ Sawyer systems are extended further to include monitoring and controlling entire work-cells. According to Rethink Robotics representatives, new Sawyer platforms will ship with Intera 5 installed. Existing Sawyer systems are eligible for Intera updates. Intera 5 is not available for Rethink Robotics’ dual-armed Baxter platform.

Three Separate Announcements


Forgoing the convention of limiting the number topics for public corporate announcements, Rethink Robotics rolled multiple messages into a single public outreach effort. While the Intera 5 release was covered extensively by both business and technology media, the breadth of the announcement resulted in reporting of mixed quality, little thematic continuity, and no real analysis, which is disappointing given the technical significance of the release and the ramifications for manufacturing.

The Rethink Robotics Intera 5 announcement is in actuality three separate announcements.

  • Abstracted Programming – Earlier Intera versions included a programming-by-demonstration (PbD) feature where robot behaviors are not programmed, but instead systems are ‘taught’ specific tasks. For example, a robot’s arms are physically positioned, and objects are recognized and grasped to simulate a task. Once a sequence of such actions are entered and confirmed by the system, the robot is free to work. For more complicated tasks, Rethink Robotics also supplied a software development kit (SDK) providing access to low-level system functions.









    According to Rethink Robotics officials, the PbD approach worked for many classes of applications, but was limited for other more complex tasks. Rethink Robotics customers found that physically moving the robot to extremely exact coordinates was difficult, and therefore precise movement still demanded detailed, code-level programming. For Intera 5, Rethink Robotics engineers surfaced a graphical behavior tree system that allows both high-level and low-level programmatic details such as 3D positioning coordinates to be set using the visual UI on the robot itself or via the browser-based Intera Studio software (See Figure 1). The behavior tree acts as a highly visual programming interface providing floor-to-ceiling programmatic access, where functionality can be highly abstracted, but low-level details can also be easily accessed, set, and adjusted graphically. With Intera 5, Sawyer platforms can still be programmed easily using PbD or other methods, but fewer limitations are placed on the types of software that can be developed using non-programmatic means.
  • Adaptive Force Control – Before the Intera 5, adaptive force sensing—the ability to sense or respond to a specific force in real time—was handled programmatically in code. Using Intera 5, developers can utilize the graphical behavior tree to easily set and adjust force variables with great accuracy so that Sawyer systems apply or react with high sensitivity in real time to specific amounts of force when executing a task. This capability increases the range of applications suited to the Sawyer platform. In addition to the typical material handling and machine tending tasks, Intera 5-powered Sawyer systems are much more capable of supporting light assembly tasks, where extremely accurate part placement and precise levels of force are required (electronics assembly, for example).
  • Work-Cell Coordination – With Intera 5, automation can be extended beyond the Sawyer platform itself. The Intera 5 allows Sawyer controllers to connect with other devices and equipment within a work-cell such as computer numeric control machines (CNC) and conveyer belts without the need for dedicated conventional programmable logic controllers (PLCs). Work-cell automation, which allows for data sharing, process monitoring, task synchronization, and overall, coordinated control, can be accomplished much more quickly and easily.

Functional Extension and Transformational Change


For all of their success, the usefulness of industrial robotics systems has been limited by their high costs, complex programming, application inflexibility, and inability to work in close association with humans. In response, a number of solution providers—both larger, established companies and younger firms—developed and released collaborative robots, human scale systems that are easy to set up and program, are capable of being used by workers with a wide range of qualification levels, can support multiple types of automation, as well as work safely in close proximity to human workers. Examples of collaborative robots include ABB’s YuMi, Universal Robots’ (Teradyne) UR family of robots, KUKA’s LBR iiwa, FANUC CR-35iA, and Kawada Industries’ Nextage.

In the past, Rethink Robotics’ competitive positioning vis-à-vis other collaborative systems came down to rapid setup and programming efficiency. The company touted out-of-the-box usability and programming ease, as well as the ability to be operated by a workforce with a wide range of education and qualification levels as key differentiators. Rethink Robotics’ systems could be put into production very rapidly, and repurposed quickly and easily as needs demanded.

With Intera 5, Rethink Robotics builds upon these historical advantages and extends them. For example, abstracted, simplified programming is now supported for both basic and complex system development. Rapid deployment and integration, too, has been extended and now includes entire work-cells. It could be said that with the Intera 5 human-robot collaboration has been expanded to include collaboration among the various functional elements in a work-cell. According to Rethink Robotics customers, Intera 5 resulted in significant reductions in work-cell deployment times.

The Intera 5 announcement also highlights another Rethink Robotics differentiator, namely the centrality of software in the company’s business model. On more than one occasion, company representatives referred to Rethink Robotics as a software company that also sells robots. It is also true that Rethink Robotics’ software model is similar to that found in the PC and workstation market, unlike the bulk of other industrial robotics suppliers. Software is released on a rapid, consistent basis, with each new version providing for new capabilities and offering better performance. For example, the original Baxter systems that shipped in 2012 ran on beta software. The first version of the ‘final’ Baxter code followed in 2013, and this was updated repeatedly on a regular basis thereafter, with one point release improving Baxter performance as much as 3X according to Rethink Robotics representatives.

Prior to the Intera 5, each Intera software iteration provided for consistent, yet incremental change. Intera 5, however, is a much more significant release, hence its inability to run on the older Baxter platform (the Sawyer platform outsells the Baxter system by a factor of 10 to 1). Yes, Intera 5 simplifies programming, work-cell connectivity, and automation; but more importantly, Intera 5 is a future functional enabler for production lines and supply chains that are completely integrated and tightly synchronized, with process automation occurring on the fly aided by secure cloud/distributed architectures, and processes that are optimized autonomously and in real time with the assistance of advanced analytics and machine learning (ML) (i.e., Industry 4.0). Viewed in this light, Intera 5 also finds itself in the company of other automation integration systems such as Yamaha’s Advanced Robotics Automation Platform and FANUC’s Intelligent Edge Link and Drive (FIELD) system.



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