Fri, 13/07/2018 - 05:35
Current Issue 34
Enabling and Empowering
Universal Robots has enjoyed an award-winning, ground-breaking 12 months, attaining even higher market shares despite a rise in sector competition
Writer: Matthew Staff
Project Manager: Tom Arnold
Almost one year ago to the day, Universal Robots’ Co-Founder and Chief Technical Officer, Esben Østergaard shared the success story of a Company that had grown beyond its wildest dreams, as its strategic vision for the optimisation of collaborative robots reached the masses.
12 months on, this vision has reached further new realms, and following a period which has brought the Company awards, accolades, revenue growth, product innovations, network development and client expansions, the Company is enabling and empowering more than ever before.
“Since speaking to EME Outlook in 2017, we achieved the substantial, tremendous growth that we were looking for and had planned for,” Østergaard affirms. “We are continuing to combine the best of both human and technological worlds; achieving that balance with new and improved products, as well as diversifications as seen through our UR+ service which now comprises more than 300 partners.
“We remain market leaders and through the release of our new platform launched recently at Automatica in Munich, we continue to stay true to our vision which is to make robots that are easy to use, easy to move, and safe to be around.”
Ultimately, Universal Robots continues to raise the bar across all critical parameters of this collaborative robots evolution; reinventing what the industry perceives advanced robotics to be about – “enabling and empowering people”.
“Our Company is pretty unique in that we’ve always had a very strict focus on what we want to do in this regard, making robots easier for people to adopt, and saving time and energy across factory floors,” he continues. “And the success of this consistent, unwavering strategy can be seen in our growth - explosive growth that totalled 72 percent last year, making it eight consecutive years of extensive double-digit growth.”
Striking a trend
As is the case with every innovator and pioneer, there is an element of reacting to consumer and industry trends when it comes to unveiling new products. But with Universal Robots’ established portfolio of flexible, durable and multi-functional robotic arms, it’s fair to say that the Company has actually pre-empted trends, rather than reacted to them.
“We had no idea quite how good it would be to make robots that were easy to move around and that were flexible enough to deploy into existing factory lines,” Østergaard explains. “Initially we envisaged them being utilised by smaller Danish companies looking for heightened adaptability and upturns in investment. But simultaneously, we ended up striking a trend whereby product lifecycles – and therefore factory line durations – were becoming shorter and shorter.
“Therefore, product turnover has got quicker and quicker as consumers increasingly demand new experiences, new products, new shapes and specifications. This of course makes the prospect of having flexible robotics to aid the transition between factory settings and specifications so appealing.”
Although Østergaard stresses that there was an element of luck in aligning with this consumer trend, the ability to then capitalise on said trend was down to much more than just fortune. Flexible, automated, collaborative equipment has become the order of the day across a multitude of sectors, but designing the perfect range of products to meet such a complex, niche requirement is a different prospect altogether.
The cobot market leader
The ability to then upgrade, refine and hone these products on an ongoing basis is testament to Universal Robots’ market-leading team, and has been epitomised over the past few months with its new, next-generation e-Series ‘cobots’.
“Our new product primarily shows our strengths in safety technology,” Østergaard says. “We are by far the leading company when it comes to safety functions for collaborative robots. At this point, we have 17 advanced safety functions, and they are all rated according to ISO 13849-1 which is elite performance level and a pretty big deal to have for any safety function; let alone 17. We are therefore fully compliant from a safety perspective.”
A Company statement read at the time of the e-Series’ unveiling: “The Universal Robots e-Series collaborative robots empower future-ready users with collaborative innovations, a human-centric user experience, and an ecosystem for every application.
“This new collaborative robot platform includes technology advances that enable faster development for a wider variety of applications.”
Improvements include the ability to economically address even more applications, thanks to greater precision and sensitivity provided by a built-in, tool-centric force/torque sensor; and as you’d expect from UR, convenience is unparalleled.
“Our e-Series platform is leveraging our years of experience as the market leader within collaborative robots,” added Jürgen von Hollen, President of Universal Robots, in the release. “The ‘e’ in e-Series stands for ‘Evolution’ and it also underpins our key vision and overall product philosophy, specifically ‘Empowering people and making it Easy for Everyone’.
“End-users with complex applications and diverse or uncertain future needs will benefit from the e-Series platform and our unique Universal Robots+ ecosystem knowing that their investment will be able to grow with them as their needs change. We enable innovative customers to rapidly drive adoption of automation technology into their businesses to maximise their competitive advantage.”
He concluded: “The global cobot market is expected to continue to be one of the key growth drivers in the automation market in the coming years. With the e-Series, my expectation is that we at Universal Robots will continue to leverage our position as the cobot market leader. This, however, can only be done by staying ahead technologically.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Universal Robots’ ground-breaking evolution has been recognised by some of the industry’s most significant peers; most notably in recent times via the Manufacturing Leadership Council.
Representing more than 1,000 senior-level members from around the global manufacturing industry, UR was awarded Frost & Sullivan’s ‘Manufacturer of the Year’ award in the small/medium enterprise category.
Østergaard received the accolade which represented outstanding manufacturing achievement, with the Leadership Council emphasising to him that Universal Robots is “pioneering work in creating and popularising collaborative robots, which are helping manufacturers of all sizes cope with intense cost pressures and customer demand for high mix-low volume production”.
Esben’s visits to the stage didn’t end there, as the Company also won the Collaborative Innovation Leadership award for the UR+ platform, and the Smart Products and Services Leadership award for its overall product portfolio.
Lastly, and certainly not least, he picked up personal recognition for Visionary Leadership for his efforts in transforming the Company, for challenging assumptions, and for empowering others.
As the most prestigious honour in the automation industry, the Engelberger Robotics award of course signifies the success of Universal Robots, but more directly Østergaard’s role in driving such a rise to prominence.
The President of the American Robotic Industries Association (RIA), Jeff Burnstein spoke at the ceremony: “His work in the field of collaborative robot applications has allowed robots to enter previously unthinkable sectors in just about every industry. Esben 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 characterised by people and robots working together, Esben’s pioneering technology advances play a pivotal role.”
The winner proudly responded: “I’m deeply honoured to win the award named after Joseph Engelberger, who revolutionised industrial manufacturing with robotics. Engelberger’s view that a robot should be able to handle a range of tasks in a factory aligns with Universal Robots’ core mission, and I’m a great admirer of his work.
“We want to place control of factory automation back into the hands of operators. Instead of replacing people we want to give them a tool to do their work more efficiently. We want to remove them from working like robots to becoming robot programmers and handling more value-added tasks. Doing this will perhaps be the best long-term result derived from leveraging collaborative robots.”
The hottest area in robotics
Going on to describe this era of manufacturing as the ‘5th industrial revolution’, Universal Robots will always have the honour of being a trailblazer and first to the punch in this sector. But amid an inevitably growing swathe of competition, there is now an additional pressure to not only innovate, but to do so quickly and ahead of the rest of the market.
Østergaard says: “We’re seeing more and more people now becoming aware of the benefits of collaborative robots. At Automatica we had the most robots of any brand at the show and that’s pretty cool for a 13-year-old company. But what we also saw was the growing number of competitors which now amounts to around 40 looking to unveil similar products to us.
“Of course, that brings a challenge for us, but it’s also great in that it gives legitimacy to the market we’re trying to open up.”
Prospective clients will now see a host of operators driving the same benefits, making it an even more credible and believable proposition. The pressure then comes in making sure you’re the chosen provider; a status which Universal Robots is confidently retaining.
Østergaard continues: “Collaborative robots are probably the hottest area in robotics and we’re seeing lots of small new startups and companies from adjacent industries entering the space. In response, we have been continuously speeding up our processes for a while now in the knowledge that these competitors would be coming.
“We’re actually surprised how long it has taken for them to pick up, but we are prepared, and our recent launch of an even better collaborative robot shows how willing and ready we are to raise the bar.”
UR is not only having to accommodate a growing number of competitors, but also a growing clientele footprint. A lot of new industries are realising the possibilities that cobots can offer; some, the Company could never have anticipated.
Fast food chains, for example, were expected and planned for, but restaurants’ usage of collaborative robots have been a pleasant surprise; as have construction sites, and even the aviation industry who now use such devices in the cockpits of aeroplanes as remotely controlled alternatives should the pilot/s become incapacitated.
“We really do serve such a diverse range of industries now,” Østergaard says. “We made a robot that has a small footprint, is easy to deploy and easy to build on top of in terms of tech. And that seems to have really hit the spot for a number of industries. Perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising given that we have robots in three sizes, and given they have the same six degrees of freedom that a human has. The products have intrinsic universal capabilities and are therefore perfect for a lot of different applications.”
Traditionally, startups and new entrants to a tech-driven market can skip past older operators to the most modern solutions, but due to the footprint already established by UR, and the innovations still being explored for an ever-increasing market, the Company’s status as market leader looks safe for some time to come.
Østergaard adds: “There is pressure to continuously innovate and develop for sure, but I believe we can do it. We have a really good team and despite the competition we still have more market share – around 60 percent – than the rest of the market combined, and our vision is to continue to dominate.”
Just getting started
The vision isn’t solely a management-driven war cry, rather it is a considered ethos that emanates throughout all tiers of the Universal Robots hierarchy and over to each and every customer.
In the middle exists a team of the best and brightest engineers who enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship with a company that has provided them with the perfect platform to apply their ingenuity.
Compounding this asset is the Company’s proximity to a local university that is similarly focusing on robotics as an impactful frontier.
Østergaard explains: “The university is doing a very good job expanding heavily into robotics, taking in more than 100 engineers every year. By anyone’s standards, that’s world-class and unparalleled, and provides us with a very advantageous breeding ground to source local talent and to give opportunities to young and talented robotics engineers.”
Expanding at a comparable rate to its HR operations is Universal Robots’ supply chain network, as Østergaard adds: “It’s super complicated when you achieve high double-digit growth for eight years in a row. It can be a challenge to manage the network as inevitably some suppliers won’t be able to hit those same growth figures in order to keep up.
“It’s an ongoing process but is an enormous opportunity for those who can match our development, and for those new partners that we continuously look out for.”
Essentially, all strands of product development, HR and the supply chain need to grow in tandem, but this challenge is compensated by the business’s status as a provider, employer and partner of choice; an exciting organisation that attracts the right kind of people.
“The brand is now a well-known entity, and what sets us apart is that we created the market to begin with,” Østergaard concludes. “There were similar robots on the market when we started but they were not successful and didn’t gain traction. We made the market successful.
“Today, they all try to catch up with us but we still have the lead as we have the best products, the best distribution network and the best ecosystem.
“That being said, there is still a lot of potential out there to still go and capitalise on. Our strategy is of course to grow sales but to then do all the things required to make that happen. There’s still an enormous need for automation and the benefits of collaborative robots are really great, but the industry is really just getting started.”