Mobile robots have proliferated in factories and warehouses, and a key component is how they interface with production lines, conveyor belts, or human workers. Nord Modules last week announced its entry into the U.S. market with flexible systems that work with Mobile Industrial Robots’ MiR line of autonomous mobile robots.
Such modular loading and lifting systems may seem obvious, but Nord Modules standardizes them for easier installation and use.
The Robot Report spoke with Kenneth Bruun Henrikson, chief commercial officer of Nord Modules, about how his company developed these modules based on customer feedback. He also described how his own experiences in the Danish robotics community have helped build startups, as well as Nord Modules’ latest offering — the PM1500.
How did your previous experience at gripper makers On Robot and Purple Robotics lead to your position at Nord Modules?
Henrikson: During my time at On Robot, I was building its distribution network in Europe. After the merger with OptoForce and Perception Robotics that created OnRobot, I decided to split.
I was in contact with Peter [Nadolny Madsen, co-founder of Purple Robotics]. We both came from an engineering background. The company’s emphasis was on building software, and it needed people with experience with commercialization.
I had success building Purple Robotics’ global distribution network, shown in OnRobot’s offer to purchase the company after just one year.
At Purple Robotics, I was also in contact with Bruno Hansen, [co-founder of Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR) and] founder of Nord Modules. We agreed that we had mutual ideas and goals back in October. We’ve hired 10 people since then.
Nord Modules entered the market in November of last year. Right now, we are focused on building our distribution network and listening to the market. We are visiting big manufacturers and want to further develop our products.
What’s the nature of the partnership between Nord Modules and MiR?
Henrikson: We’re focused on building standard modules for the MiR robots. Already when Bruno was working with MiR, he came to the conclusion that some equipment was needed to make the robot more useful.
We have a strong belief that this will be a platform for MiR like UR+ is for Universal Robots with preferred end-of-arm tooling partners. Nord Modules is one of the first partners to be approved. It’s a win-win for MiR, for us, and especially our customers.
We’re very committed to MiR. We’re close partners, we use their distributors, and we have participated in different exhibitions together. At Automate in April, MiR will be showing our products.
Why do you think the robotics cluster in Odense, Denmark, has been so successful in launching new companies?
Henrikson: One reason for the success in Odense is that people here are very good at networking and helping each other.
In a fast-growing business with a lot of things going on, companies are bought, and leadership changes. I was within end-of-arm tooling; right now, I’m in the AMR [autonomous mobile robot] business, so it’s not like we’re competitors.
When people are looking for help to start up a company, I’m mentioned because of my experience. I like to help people who have ideas but not the experience. I’m working full-time at Nord Modules, but I have also helped startups with how to approach the market and get success.
What’s the value proposition for Nord Modules?
Henrikson: We want to change the way that manufacturers are thinking, where they want to have all their production lines at certain height — 800 mm [31 in.] — where people work. If they can bring down their production lines, they don’t need as much steel for the construction of conveyors and save on costs.
Instead of manually handling boxes and wearing out or hurting employees, they can leave that to the mobile robots. Rather than having employees repeatedly lifting heavy items, they can do something different and bring more value.
Can you explain Nord Modules’ approach?
Henrikson: Bruno took one year to look at different ideas for applications. He came to the conclusion that this product was the right one. It’s a very flexible solution and can handle a wide variety of items.
The Top Mover module can handle items of different sizes and shapes, as well as standup boxes.
Then, the different gates for production — with rollers, they can work at delivery. The control box can call for the MiR robot to pick up a package from that gate.
We have two versions of our gate modules: a FLEX version and a BASIC version. The FLEX series is for differently sized items and can handle boxes from 200 mm [7.87 in.].
The new BASIC version has fewer fingers and is competitively priced to handle boxes from 400 mm (15.74 in.) wide.
Can you give an example of a customer?
Henrikson: Danfoss makes thermostats and POCs [pilot-operated check valves]. We have a project to help [it to] optimize internal logistics and transportation.
Our main industries are plastic molding, metals, and electronics. We see big potential in the electronics market, and we’ll develop some special applications.
That’s our main industries — where we can help with process time. In pharmaceuticals, by contrast, there’s a need for much higher speed. It can be a challenge for moving boxes with robots, and companies might use other equipment.
What kind of feedback have you received from users?
Henrikson: They have been very positive about our solutions. In general, they understand the vision behind our standard modules.
For the past several years, there haven’t been standardized modules for the MiR robots. Customers had to engineer their own applications. Many were very clever, but customization can bring difficulties.
We bring collaborative applications for the MiR robots, and we bring applications that have European safety ratings to the market.
Distributors are now happy for a standardized supplier. It’s easier to get support. If an end user contacts MiR directly with an issue, because of our close relationship, it’s easier for MiR to ask about the application.
When an end user says, “I have a module from Nord Modules,” it’s much easier to make a recommendation.
Nord Modules announced Hermitage Automation as the first of several distributors. What regions are you looking at?
Henrikson: Our goal is to cover the whole U.S. or North America. It will be good to have more distributors.
We’ve contacted all of MiR’s distributors, and we’re in the process of evaluating which states to target. We are in contact with different distributors.
What are your plans for Automate/ProMat 2019 in Chicago?
Henrikson: Nord Modules will be launching its new P1500 module, a pallet mover/roll conveyor that has a payload of up to 1500 kg [3,306 lb.]. It is the strongest top module for the MiR500, which handles payloads of 500 kg [1,102 lb.], but the PM1500 will also be able to handle heavier payloads.
It can handle many different pallet sizes — for example, EU pallets, U.S. pallets, and half pallets. The P1500 has integrated communication to external roller conveyors with infrared signals, a pallet-locking function for safety, and a low center of gravity. We have received feedback from customers and support the entire MiR line.