Automatica 2018 was quite the success for Universal Robots. Not only did the Danish manufacturer of collaborative robot arms launch its next-generation e-Series and have a major presence throughout the exhibition halls, co-founder and CTO Esben Østergaard was named a winner of the 2018 Engelberger Robotics Award. Gudrun Litzenberger, General Secretary of the International Federation of Robotics, was the other winner. Read our Q&A with Litzenberger here.
Known as the “Nobel Prize” of robotics, the Robotic Industries Association (RIA) has bestowed the award upon 126 robotics experts from 17 nations since its inception in 1977. The Engelberger Robotics Award honors individuals for excellence in technology development, application, education and leadership in the robotics industry and recognize outstanding individuals from all over the world.
Jeff Bernstein, president of the RIA, called Østergaard a visionary in defining a new category of robotics. “His work in the field of collaborative robot applications has allowed robots to enter previously unthinkable sectors in just about every industry,” said Burnstein. “Østergaard’s emphasis on robots that work side-by-side with people and are easy to use has created enormous interest among many small and medium sized companies who never even considered robots before. In a world that is increasingly characterized by people and robots working together, Esben’s pioneering technology advances play a pivotal role.”
Østergaard co-founded Universal Robots in 2003 and in 2015 sold it to Teradyne for $285 million. We caught up with Østergaard at Automatica to discuss the collaborative robotics market, challenges his company faces, how cobots will continue to become easier to use, and more.
What does winning the Engelberger Robotics Award mean to you?
I’m too young too retire, so I think I’m too young to receive a lifetime achievement award. Hopefully, I’m only halfway through life. It’s a great honor to win it. It’s a big recognition that what we’re doing at Universal Robots is legitimate. We weren’t taken too seriously at the beginning, but now the general industry has seen that collaborative robots isn’t a fad.
Tell us about Universal Robots’ new e-Series
We define collaborative as the combination of fast set-up, easy programming, flexible deployment, and safe operation. Those four core principles define what collaborative robots are. A lot of people mistake it as only being about safety, but it’s the whole package.
What we’ve done with the e-Series is upgraded all the internal features of the robot and strengthened each of those four core principles. The e-Series is safer, easier to program, faster to set up and more capable, meaning it’s more flexible in where it can be deployed. So we have raised the bar for what it means to be a collaborative robot.
What are the benefits of the e-Series’ built-in force torque sensors?
This enables force torque applications and easier teaching of the robots. We’re showing a polishing application using the same polishing tool a human would hold. You can just add your manual tool to the robot now. Another demo shows a gripper moving down until it feels a small resistance, and then it opens and grips a part. With built-in force torque sensors, there’s no need for an external sensor to find out when you have contact. That’s all built into the robot.
Were there new features UR couldn’t work into the e-Series that further enable ease-of-use?
Yes, but I can’t say what. We are, of course, aware of the growing competition that’s coming. We want to stay ahead. We have the lead now, and we want to keep it that way even though the market is growing.
— The Robot Report (@therobotreport) June 19, 2018
Describe the moment you realized robots were too difficult to use?
We had a project going on with the [Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark] that asked our university group to figure out how to get more robots into the Danish food industry.
We found two specific companies and tried to get them to use robots to automate their production lines. One company had to reconfigure a production line roughly every month to make a new kind of food. We tried to teach them to re-program a traditional robot and it simply wasn’t possible for them to learn that.
Robots were too big and heavy to move around. And the companies couldn’t hire robot programmers because there wasn’t enough work for them. They’d get bored or find other things to do. It wasn’t a good business case to hire robot programmers. On the other hand, it was also annoying to have to call someone every time a small change had to be made on the robot. That’s when we started thinking about making a robot that was easier to program and move around for different applications.
Has the UR+ program turned into a profit source?
No, it’s a dating service for us. We provide a contact between problems and solutions, but we don’t get involved in the actual business. The UR+ program allows more people to automate. The problems people around the world needed to solve with our arms were repeated over and over again. That’s why we made the UR+ program – to get the partners to leverage each other’s solutions. If something is already developed once, why not try to build it into a product you can sell, and avoid reinventing the wheel.
We had these small university-type startup companies that had great technology solutions to problems, but they didn’t have the sales capacity or global reach. The UR+ ecosystem accelerates adoption of new technology for automation. The more technology you can package and make accessible to non-experts, the more you can start harvesting the benefit of automation.
History of Universal Robots
2003: Co-founders Kristian Kassow, Esben Østergaard, and Kasper Støy meet at University of Southern Denmark
2005: Universal Robots officially founded; receives investment from Syddansk Innovation
2008: First UR5 cobots sold by distributors in Denmark and Germany
2010: UR expands business to include all of Europe
2011: UR enters the Asian market
2012: UR10 launches
2015: UR3 launches; UR acquired by Teradyne for $285 million
2016: Introduction of UR+ program
2018: Launches e-Series; Østergaard wins Engelberger Robotics Award
What are the main challenges UR needs to overcome?
The main challenge we have is awareness. Most of the companies we’re targeting, especially the small-to-medium manufacturing companies, they don’t yet know much about what robots can do for them. Many of them haven’t even started thinking about automation. Thinking about robots is the next step for them. We need to continue to create the market and educate the companies about the possibilities of robots. That’s the main challenge we have – getting the word out there.
So what’s the potential market for cobots?
In the US alone, there are 300,000 small and medium-sized manufacturers, and I haven’t been to one that couldn’t use robots. They all could probably use more than one robot. It’s probably similar in Europe and Asia. So the potential is enormous.
What’s the most unique application you’ve seen using a UR robot?
The one where one of our arms landed an aircraft as a co-pilot. I’m also surprised every time I go to the movies and see our robots in a movie, [including building David, the android in Alien: Covenant]. That’s robots building robots.
But for real applications, landing airplanes is something I didn’t see coming. It gives us an idea that we’re onto something with the word “Universal.” It’s amazing how much these robots stimulate creativity from people. We want to give people a tool that can automate their jobs and make their lives easier. But we didn’t expect it to go so far.
Thoughts on OnRobot merger?
We see a lot of activity in the ecosystem around our robots. A lot of these companies don’t just bet on us. There are other companies coming into the space, which we welcome. It’s cool to see so much activity around the robot. It’s becoming a business to build on our robots. That’s what we wanted. OnRobot is selling in the UR+ program, like Robotiq and a lot of others. We have over 300 partners in the UR+ program.
Will UR create arms with 7 degrees of freedom?
There are some companies making 7-DOF arms. It means you can move the elbow. There’s a need [for 7-DOF arms], but it’s generally not a major one.
How has the Teradyne acquisition helped UR?
Teradyne acquired the company based on our plan for growth. Teradyne is supporting that growth and hasn’t changed our strategy. It was a help to get them on board. Teradyne has knowledge about how to do things when you’re a larger company. We were a growing startup company [at the time], and we didn’t have all the procedures in place to handle larger volumes. It was pretty useful to have access to their experts in our growth phase.
Will UR change its model of only selling through integrators/distributors?
Our main vision is to get robots out, make a difference in manufacturing companies, and get people away from working like robots. I think there will always be a need for integration. But level of integration required varies. The amount of integration done is limited by the number of available integrators. There are not enough integrators today to handle all the automation needs. There is a need for 3.5 million automation engineers in the US alone, but there’s only 1.5 million available today.
Our mission is to make it easier to integrate and give more ownership to the factory floor. But I don’t see a situation where there’s no need for integration. It’s becoming easier to automate, but eventually more advanced processes will be automated, so we’ll need integrators.
What about UR are you proudest of?
One thing we see with the companies using our robots is that they’re not laying off people, they’re hiring more people. The robots aren’t replacing people, they’re helping grow the business. When the business grows, there’s more work, which means more people need to be employed. That’s something I’m proud of.
This whole discussion about robots replacing people is there because of the fear people have of technology. The fear is real, but the problem isn’t real. We won’t replace people with robots. We won’t make work go away. We’ve always used technology to make our lives more convenient and get more done in less time. But technology has never made our species unemployed. We want to be lazy, but we cannot not work. Work will continue to change, and it’s really hard for us today to guess what a job is in 200 years.
What are some cobot trends to watch?
The trend to watch is more and more competition. A lot of the new companies won’t make it, but maybe watch for who will be Number 2. I don’t know who Number 2 is or will be, but we can’t have this to ourselves forever. We welcome it as it creates more awareness. It doesn’t make us nervous. Of course we want to win, we want to stay ahead, but we also welcome the competition.
Do you foresee UR creating robots other than cobot arms?
No. Of course, Teradyne just acquired Mobile Industrial Robots [MiR], which makes a mobile platform. They have their product, we have our product. We are doing this open ecosystem approach to robots. It makes sense for Universal to continue making the best possible arm platform and then that platform can sit on MiR’s platform.