OnRobot made a major splash with its merger that brought together US-based Perception Robotics, Hungary-based OptoForce, and Denmark-based OnRobot. Under the leadership of CEO Enrico Krog Iversen, OnRobot’s goal is to become the one-stop shop for collaborative end-of-arm tooling.
The company has a long way to go, but it’s catching the eyes of many in the industry with recent moves. In August, OnRobot acquired Denmark-based startup Purple Robotics, which was founded by former Universal Robots employees who created the PR10 electrical-based vacuum gripper that doesn’t require an external air supply.
OnRobot also raised a large funding round led by Summit Partners, with participation from existing investor The Danish Growth Fund, that should enable it to continue its acquisition streak.
The Robot Report caught up with OnRobot’s Kristian Hulgard, GM of the Americas, at IMTS 2018. We discussed what OnRobot looks for in potential acquisitions, the commoditization of collaborative robots, adding tactile sensing to grippers and more.
One type of gripper missing from OnRobot’s portfolio is one with soft robotics technology? What are your thoughts on the technology?
Our strategy, in regard to both acquisitions and development of new products, is to add something new. We want to be sure that when we launch something, it’s something that’s not just another run-of-the-mill product.
That’s what we’re show here at IMTS. Most of the technology is brand new. Without going into detail, if soft robotics technology fit within our vision, that would be something we could potentially look at. But we can’t commit to something in the future yet.
What made Purple Robotics an attractive acquisition?
I think it’s a genius product. It’s something that’s been missing in the market. It has flexibility. It also has its limitations, but all products do. Through our integrators and customers, we saw that this gripper is a fit for about 90% of the applications out there.
History-wise, we also know the guys behind the company. There was never a doubt that the product was of the highest quality. The guys behind the product are very talented.
How does OnRobot plan to maintain its sales growth?
Our growth plan is to get the right partners on board. There are still a few holes in our existing geographically-covered areas, but what is extremely important is that we don’t only focus on Universal Robots.
Due to the history of the company, [Universal Robots] was, of course, the first robot brand we were supporting because we knew how it worked and were comfortable with the product. Right now, all our products are compatible with all robot brands.
[Editor’s Note: OnRobot’s CEO/CCO Enrico Krog Iversen was CEO of UR from 2008 through the sale to Teradyne in 2015. Read our profile on Iversen here.]
As you can see in our booth, we have Fanuc, Kawasaki, KUKA. We’re not married to anybody. We are aiming for the whole spectrum of collaborative robots and that’s definitely the key for the growth that we’re aiming for. We want to go out and make partnerships with all robot brands.
What geographical area is seeing the most growth for OnRobot?
The US is a big potential market for us and is something we’re focusing on. We showed that by starting our commercial office in Dallas. We have our R&D and production in Los Angeles.
But certain countries in Europe tend to be more automation heavy, like Germany. They are a step ahead of everybody. The focus on the US is very high from our side. Our footprint in the US market will be as big as we can make it with local support, technical personnel, and area sales managers.
Where would you rank the Danish robotics cluster?
Wow, that’s a hard question. Odense has done a lot to follow the robot trend that came out of Universal Robots. We owe a lot to the guys at UR. They started the adventure.
What the city and the whole area picked up on is that you have a great university there. The state and the city have introduced programs for people abroad to come and study robot technology at Odense University. That snowball is rolling now, and that’s what you see now with MiR and the recent sale to Teradyne.
We have more and more companies coming out of the area. I think every single company has received recognition for what they’re doing. I’m Danish, so you’re preaching to the choir, making me proud.
How did you get into robotics and start working for OnRobot?
I was working at a manufacturing company. After that I was hired by Universal Robots. I think I was employee number 35. It was a very young company back then. We had to sell the concept of the cobot.
I left Universal Robots to chase a dream of living abroad, and I moved to the Middle East for about five years. Then I got back in contact with Enrico and, since he owns OnRobot, we found an agreement for me to get back into automation, which I’d been looking to do for quite a while.
It’s great to come back now and see that the concept we worked so hard on selling, everybody is in on it now. Everyone knows what a cobot is, everybody knows the benefits of collaborative robots.
Now you have to sell, and that’s what we’re doing, how you can add value outside of just the collaborative robot itself. How do you actually add more value to your application? That’s how we see it in your tooling, in the flexibility of using tools for different things.
How are collaborative robots becoming easier for the industry to use?
You have to recognize that, at some point, the collaborative robot will become a commodity. All the robot brands, they will start being able to do the same thing, right? So what is actually adding value to your application?
If you have all the same features and all the same robots, then you need to look at the ecosystem around the robot. What is actually adding value? Here, all our products are multipurpose. The whole mindset about easy installation, flexibility in product, programming is simple – our products have that. Whether your application is high-mix, low-volume or high-volume, low-mix, it doesn’t matter for us.
Won’t robotic grippers being commoditized at some point, too?
I think that’s the hardest part of having a technology manufacturing company. You need to have some really sharp R&D guys that can come up with new features and new functions in both new and existing products.
Since we have the new investment onboard, we have this pile of cash now for acquisition purposes. Enrico’s been quite verbal about 8-12 acquisitions in the next two years. That shows that OK, we’re ready to commit to new technologies and products so we keep reinventing ourselves, and keep the ball rolling in terms of giving some new values to our partners.
What’s a trend to watch in robotic grippers?
Where I see most potential in new products in regards to gripping technology, is adding some sort of sensing technology. Whether that is tactile, a force-torque sensor or a laser, the future of collaborative tooling is to add intelligence to the tool. Now you don’t only have a gripper that can do this or that, but it gives feedback to the program, which has the freedom of using that information for whatever needs to get solved.
Tell us about OnRobot’s new Quick Changer, which was built by Purple Robotics?
It’s a click-on, click-off tool changer that goes with all our products and all robot brands. You can change the tool in five seconds, even with the electronic connection, then you’re up and running with a new tool. You can do the preset programming in your collaborative robot and you’re ready to handle other products.
Of course, it has its limitations in a sense of people asking, “do you have in and outputs of vacuum going through?” But since it is a collaborative robot, you’re going to be working around a collaborative robot anyway, and you always have just one connector. You don’t need to have the vacuum one that is going through. You don’t need that. You just click it off at the connector and then you’re ready.
Will we ever see a gripper that is as capable as a human hand?
I think you have to remember that our market is industrial, so you need to make industrial-grade products. With the hand-like grippers we’ve seen so far, it’s probably not going be so useful in industrial settings, but you can get close. It’s all about adding the sense of touch to your grippers so that you can actually follow the curves and feel where you are on the products.
That’s why we’re here, to show that you don’t need to have 300 different grippers. Even if you’re just limited to, let’s say 100, then we’ve still come a long way.