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Joanne Pransky interviews Dr William Townsend: MIT entrepreneur develops whole-arm manipulation for robot/human interaction

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Purpose ‐ The following article is a special, new "Q&A interview" conducted by Industrial Robot Journal as a unique way to pass along information from a prominent, robotic industry engineer-turned entrepreneur regarding the evolution, commercialization, and challenges of bringing a technological invention to market. The paper aims to discuss these issues. Design/methodology/approach ‐ This first interview was with Dr William Townsend, the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Barrett Technology. Before founding Barrett, he created the world's first haptic manipulator, dubbed Whole-Arm Manipulator (WAM™) and designed to be user-centric, during his PhD 1988 completed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. He completed his PhD minor at Harvard Business School and Sloan School of Management on Managing Technical Innovation. He has won more than a dozen awards, including the Joseph F. Engelberger Award, for his technical leadership in robotics and has authored many papers and patents on the foundational technologies of robotics. Findings ‐ Initially perceived in 1985 as controversial, PhD candidate William Townsend convinces the MIT thesis committee that his groundbreaking concept of a safer robot with backdrivable cables would lead to new markets of human/robot interaction. Three patents resulted from this PhD effort, as well as the start-up company, Barrett Technology, to develop and sell the company's flagship robot product, the WAM. One of the first uses of this cable-driven arm technology was effectively deployed in surgical robots. Other innovations were developed over several decades and to date Barrett Technology has cumulative sales of about $40 million with an accelerating pace and net profitability. Originality/value ‐ In a unique situation at the time, a robot PhD inventor turns his originations into a profitable business that catapults new applications and markets in the robotic industry. The details, challenges, and successes of his 25-year experiences are highlighted as a valuable contribution for other engineers contemplating a robot start-up.
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Keywords: Co-operating; Grippers; Health and safety; Man/machine interface; Operating room

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: October 11, 2013

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