As we move forward in this industrialized and modern era, the use of collaborative robots (cobots), which are designed to work alongside people in various areas, is growing at a rapid phase. There is continued demand for cobots. Small and medium-sized companies have not typically been able to afford industrial robotics due to lack of in-house programming capacities and limited capital spending budgets, but this sector is a prime target for cobots.
Universal Robots believes that latest collaborative robot technology should be available to all businesses. Since its inception in 2005, the company differs from anything else in the market in the sense that it is lightweight, very easy to program for any non-robot expert and can be easily moved around in the production facilities.
Universal Robots’s robot arms are advanced tools that can be used by all levels of production staff to help increase productivity, reduce injury, and boost morale. With more than 65 patents on the technology of the cobot, the company, which is a part of Boston-based Teradyne Inc., is headquartered in Odense, Denmark, and has subsidiaries and regional offices all around the globe.
In conversation with Esben Østergaard, Co-Founder & CTO
What led to the genesis of Universal Robots?
The invention of the UR robots actually started in the Danish food industry where I was working on a Ph.D. project on finding automation solutions for high mix/low volume processes. Back in 2003, the first task we wanted to automate was simply putting pepperoni on a pizza. When we started researching the market solutions, we found that the only robots available were unwieldy, heavy, expensive, very complex to program and had to operate inside safety cages. That’s when the idea of Universal Robots was conceived; we discovered a significant need in the market for lightweight, flexible, easy to program robots that could work right next to people with no safety guarding. Our first robot model, the UR5, became the first commercially viable collaborative robot, or cobot.
Can you explain what the collaborative robot or cobot is all about?
The term “collaborative” not only means that humans can collaborate directly with the robots potentially with no safety guarding between them, the term also addresses the ease of use; a robot is not truly collaborative if it’s not easy to work with. With traditional robots, the capital costs for the robots themselves account for only 25 to 30 percent of the total system costs. The remaining costs are associated with robot programming, setup, and dedicated shielded work cells. The “out of box experience” with a collaborative robot is typically less than an hour. That’s the time it takes to unpack the robot, mount it, and program the first simple task.
What makes your cobots different?
Our cobots take up much less floor space than a “traditional” industrial application as they typically don’t require safety cages (depending on the risk assessment) due to the built-in safety system that makes the UR robot stops when it encounters obstacles in its route. The average payback period for UR robots is the fastest in the industry and we have seen the robot pay itself back in as little as 1-2 months.
Furthermore, we have sold more cobots than all competitors combined and plan to maintain our market share and momentum by continuing to invest heavily in R&D, out-innovate competitors, and staying ahead of the curve.
Do you have any new products ready to be rolled out into the market?
A new initiative that enables us to maintain our market leadership position is Universal Robots+ (UR+). With UR+ we have created a platform that leverages our innovative global ecosystem, it’s akin to an “app store” for our robots that enables 3rd party developers to create certified plug & play products for UR robots such as grippers, vision system, and other peripherals. This unique concept allows us to focus on delivering the best cobot on the market while working closely with our ecosystem to ensure that our distributors and end-users can deploy quickly by choosing UR+ products optimized to work seamlessly with our cobots. The UR+ showroom now features 62 Certified UR+ products with 238 approved commercial developers in the program.
What is the roadmap ahead for the company?
The barriers we face are mostly educational – as many potential customers still regard robotics as heavy, expensive and very complex to program. Having customers embrace the paradigm shift, realizing and understanding that industrial robots can indeed operate safely and flexibly in tandem with people outside safety cages while delivering a fast ROI is our most significant task at hand.
We need to see the robot as a colleague that works right next to us in close collaboration, not simply as a machine that takes over manual labor and gets people fired. We need an improved work environment where humans are freed up to focus on more rewarding tasks – both financially and mentally. Putting knowledge back to the factory floor will perhaps be the best long-term result derived from leveraging collaborative robots. The industrial revolutions created enormous wealth, but at the same time, it has removed passion and knowledge about the product from production itself. If we can close that gap again — if we can somehow mix people and machines in the right way on the factory floor, we see enormous potential there for value adding, rather than just cranking up production levels. It’s qualitative change.
Greet the Trailblazer
Esben Østergaard, CTO, and Co-Founder: As the CTO at Universal Robots, Esben is responsible for the enhancements of existing UR cobots and the development of new products. From 2001 to 2005 he worked as researcher and assistant professor in robotics and user interfaces at the University of Southern Denmark, where he created the foundation for a reinvention of the industrial robot. Esben is an alumnus of Aarhus University.
“We believe that collaborative robotic technology can be used to benefit all aspects of task-based businesses – no matter what their size.”