Safer, simpler robots look to change the way we work

The first company to release a “co-bot”, Universal Robots (UR) would have sold its 5,000th unit this year, and it continues its brisk expansion. Brent Balinski spoke to the company’s co-founder, Esben Østergaard, about putting robots in the hands of factory workers.

Lego, robot soccer and pepperoni

The current market leader in the booming “collaborative robot” category celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.

Commanding a claimed six-tenths of the market – which has brought a level of automation to SMEs that was previously unavailable – the Danish-headquartered company’s goal is to get as many robots into as many factories as possible.

However, this wasn’t something co-founder Esben Østergaard, who built his first robot out of Lego at age 4, grew up wanting to do.

“I think a lot of different research projects came together and made us think we could actually make this robot,” he told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

The development of a robot designed to be safe to work next to (the arms stop if met by a pre-set level of Force) and easy to set up and program was influenced by three major projects.

Østergaard’s interests include robot soccer. He was a member of the Danish world champion team in the 1998 Federation of International Robot-soccer Association event (KheperaSot category).

Involvement in RoboCup Junior competitions – where children compete – gave an insight on how to make programming simple.

After this, his PhD involved a very complex transformer robot project involving 100 identical modular robots, which could self-assemble and form different structures.

“These were highly integrated machines with electronics, computing, actuation, communication and coordination very much built into the robots themselves,” he explained.

“So that was a very integrated engineering challenge, as well as a programming challenge.”

And thirdly, he and the two other co-founders – researchers from the robotics cluster in Odense – of what became Universal were approached by the Danish government to find a way to get more automation into the food and beverage industry.

Automating tasks such as putting pepperoni on a pizza or decorations on a cake was something that, at the time, could only be achieved using a clunky, half-tonne factory robot.

The trio set about creating a smaller, nimbler, simpler-to-use solution, which could easily be moved and reprogrammed by a line worker when the product changed.

The idea for a business came about in 2004, this launched in 2005, and its first unit was sold in 2009. Revenue has roughly doubled every year for the six years since.

The co-founder estimates the 5,000th machine will have been sold by now. UR predicts it will move between 9,000 and 10,000 robots in 2017.

“We are approaching 300 a month now,” he said of sales.

Not just for car factories

In Australia, Universal announced its third local partnership in June (with ADDE). It launched here only last year.

Østergaard believes his robots, which come in versions that can transport a payload of up to 3, 5 and 10 kilograms, are a natural match for the local manufacturing scene, which has a high proportion of smaller manufacturers.

“I’m not an expert on Australia but they could match very well with the culture,” he said.

“And what we see is that, especially for the small companies, they really appreciate being able to use the robot on their own.”

The stated aim of Universal, as with the other businesses that have sprung up in the category, is to lower the barrier to automation for smaller businesses. In previous times, robots had been limited to heavy industry, led by carmakers, which are still the leading buyers of factory robots.

“So the existing robots came from the automotive industry, where there [was] a seven-day, three-shift operations, 24 hours a day for seven years running – and not a lot of adjustment,” said Østergaard.

“And if there’s adjustment, these companies can afford to have specialists in-house.”

Most manufacturing activity exists outside of car factories, so the availability of industrial robotics elsewhere offers enormous growth potential.

And where traditional robots are heavy, dangerous to be near and generally caged off, the newer breed of machines is positioned as tools to be put in the hands of workers.

Pitching robots in such a way also helps nullify the argument – frequently seen nowadays – that robots are there to steal jobs.

“You kind of take away that discussion, because nobody says that an electric screwdriver steals jobs,” said Østergaard.

“Even though it actually does, because you can screw in more screws with an electric screwdriver. But it’s simply stupid not to use it, because it’s a tool that can make you, as a craftsman, do your work better and more efficiently.”

An area where lightweight robot arms are being increasingly used is machine tending, enabling a factory to get more use out of, say, and a CNC milling machine. Having a robot hold a part in place, remove it, and repeat the task is very much in the “dull” part of the “dull, dirty and dangerous” set of tasks that are traditional targets for robot automation.

High-volume runs can be carried out by robots in this way, perhaps with more niche, special batch jobs left to workers.

“So you can have the same machines working all night and then during the day [have] a little bit more flexible operations where you need more people there,” added Østergaard.

What does the future hold?

There are differing opinions on how much the newer category of industrial robots will grow in future, and what addressable market there is in manufacturing and elsewhere.

The year has seen established industrial robotics companies, such as Fanuc and ABB, seemingly rush to bring out co-bots of their own. There’s expected to be start-ups enter the market as well, which is worth around $US 100 million and is expanding at about 50 per cent annually, according to Teradyne, the NYSE-listed company that acquired Universal for $US285 million in May of this year.

Østergaard said there is also a community of third-party contributors emerging to offer add-on products.

“One company is making raincoats for the robots so they can work in harsher environments with water, and other things like this,” he said.

“Special grippers and so on. So there’s definitely an enormous potential for innovation and for start-ups in these areas.”

How much the market will grow is anybody’s guess. Robotics Business Review reports Teradyne predicting it will be worth $US1 billion by 2020. Other modelling tips $US1.85 billion (Myria Research) and an even more bullish $US3 billion (Barclays).

Universal’s CEO, Enrico Krog Iversen, last year said 80 per cent of what UR was selling was in new applications, with only 20 per cent competing with tasks previously carried out by traditional industrial robots.

He suggested that the addressable market could thus be four times that covered by traditional robots. Extrapolate the estimated global sales of 225,000 industrial robots last year (and growing 27 per cent on 2013) and the current demand for collaborative robots seems like the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

Another industrial revolution?

There is capacity in UR’s Denmark factory, which it moved into last year and which can produce around 150 robots a day, to accommodate a great deal of expansion.

For the co-founder, he believes what the company is doing is changing the world, speaking in terms of being part of another industrial revolution.

Up to Industry 4.0, every industrial revolution has taken away the human touch of production, said Østergaard.

Pre-the original industrial revolution, an artisan would make every item bespoke for a customer, whom they may have personally known. Everything created was personalised and made with passion and care, and this went for all industries.

“But this kind of passion in the products has kind of been lost through the industrialisations,” he offered.

“So I definitely see a need to close this gap again, and by making machines that are usable by people on the factory floor, we can have the potential to close that gap again.

“And that’s one of the things I think is really important to look at in the future. So you can kind of say it’s the beginning of the fifth industrial revolution. I hope it is at least.”

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