New Breed of Robots Expand Applications & Opportunities for Small Manufacturers

  • May 13, 2013
  • Feature

By Bill Lydon, Editor

The Danish company Universal Robots has created a new breed of robots that are significantly lower in cost than traditional robots. With this new bread, even small companies can use them to improve productivity. I recently interviewed Thomas Visti, Vice President/CCO of Universal Robots, to learn more. This article highlights my interview questions along with Visti’s responses.

Thomas Visti has played a central role in transforming the promising entrepreneurial company into a well-established, global robot manufacturer. Visti joined the robot company in 2009 and is currently responsible for the company's global sales and distribution. Before joining Universal Robots, Visti worked for seven years as Sales Manager at Sauer-Danfoss, one of the world's largest manufacturers of mobile hydraulic and electrohydraulic solutions. His areas of responsibility included management in the field of electrical drive motors. He began his professional career in 2002 as an engineer with Cabinplant, a global supplier of processing solutions for the food industry. He graduated with bachelor of engineering degree from University of Southern Denmark.

When and why was Universal Robots founded?

The idea of creating a light and inexpensive robot, that is easy to install and program arose in 2003. Kristian Kassow was working on an analysis of the requirements for robots in the food industry. Meanwhile, Esben Østergaard (now our CTO) and Kasper Støy were working on a PhD project about the market for robots. Together, they discovered that the robotics market is characterized by heavy, expensive, and unwieldy robots. The three founded Universal Robots in October 2005 with financial help from investor Syddansk Innovation. The intention was to make robot technology available to all – even the SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises) that regard automation as too costly and complex.

Our young company put a lot of effort in driving the project in the first three years. In fall 2007, a prototype robot arm was tested at a greenhouse near Odense, the third largest city in Denmark and also home of our corporate headquarters. The founders set up a complete working solution for the robot in just one evening - moving trays of pottery from a conveyor to a table in stacks of three.

With a new management and extra financial support, Universal Robots started to grow up and become the well-known company it is today.

When did you ship your first robot and what has the growth rate been since then?

We shipped the first robot in December 2008. Growth rates are as follows:

  • From 2009 to 2010 - 428% increase
  • From 2010 to 2011 - 132% increase
  • From 2011 to 2012 - 85% increase

Universal seems to be a leader in a new class of robots. How do you define this new breed of robots?

When we started to develop our robotic solution, robots were treated like wild animals - caged up and unable to collaborate with humans. We’re distinctly different as 80% of the 1,600 robotic arms that we’ve seen deployed so far, operate with no safety guarding in the immediate vicinity of employees.

How do you define collaborative robots?

A collaborative robot can safely and effectively interact with human workers in performance of industrial tasks. In a collision, our robot arms deliver less force than 150 Newton (32.27lb) and is therefore adhering to the “force and torque” limitations described in EN/ANSI/RIA/ISO 10218-1- 5.10, item 5.10.5.

What is unique about your robots that specifically set you apart from others?

Our robots require no expensive programmers to install and maintain them. Setup can be done in half an hour by people with no previous programming experience. Furthermore, the price point of our robot arms starts at $33K for a rated life of min. 36,000 hours, with unrivaled performance in terms of speed, precision, portability and safety. No other robot in the marketplace can match this.

36,000 hours is 1,500 days. Is the robot then thrown away?

No, that is the minimum number of rated life hours. Of course, many robots will be able to operate much longer than that. Most of the wear and tear in the robot happens in the gears, which is why these are high quality and extremely well tested.

Exchanging a joint in the robot arm takes only half an hour due to the robot’s modular build. Spare parts are ordered through our sales support, usually with overnight delivery. We do not however, receive many orders for spare parts.

Robots typically are required to have safety guards to protect operators. Your concept is different. How did you address this requirement in the other 42 countries Universal Robots has sold to?

By fulfilling the above mentioned standards, and of course by creating a lightweight robot with no sharp edges.

How do you plan to address safety regulations in North America?

We encountered the same initial questions in Europe, but as soon as we demonstrated that it’s possible, the initial skepticism disappeared. We’re expecting this to happen in our new markets as well.

What changes does a manufacturer need to make to adopt the use of your robots?

In most cases, none - that’s the beauty of our robot arms. As with all automation solutions, you of course need to carry out a risk assessment prior to installation. If the end effectors installed with the robots are hazardous (cutters, welding torch, etc.) to humans, the robot will most likely fall within the 20% of our robot solutions that do need safety guarding.

What training is required to program your robots?

We designed these robots so that people with no prior knowledge of robotics could program and operate them.Programming can be done by dragging and dropping standard routines into an on-screen “script” for the robot, or by simply grabbing the robot arm and showing it the desired movements.

Our new U.S. distributor Cross Company created this video “It’s so easy, even our marketing guy can do it”:

That being said, we do offer Advanced Training courses on topics such as: Variables, Features, Threads and events, UR programming language, Modbus TCP/IP, Use of several UR robots, Power steering.  Click here to see an example of an Advanced Training brochure.

Are there any interfaces with third party software?

Universal Robots developed the GUI, called Polyscope, which runs on top of a Linux OS platform, enabling easy customization for specific tasks and tools. The Polyscope programming developer facility needed for this customization is supplied with the robot and continuous software updates are provided automatically.

The robot is also equipped with digital and analog inputs and outputs and Ethernet interfaces for communication with external equipment and other control systems, such as PLC and SCADA systems. The robot and controller can control a small cell as well as sensors, vision systems, activation of conveyors and other external equipment.

How much weight can your robot arm move?

The product portfolio currently includes the UR5 and UR10 models which handle payloads of up to 5 kilos (11lbs) and 10 kilos (22lbs) respectively.

What types of grippers are available from Universal Robots or third-party suppliers?

Each distributor works with the end customer in deploying a customized solution, integrated with the relevant end-effectors available in the market place for the automation task in question. We’re the Universal Robot which means we’re not affiliated with specific end-of-arm-tooling.

What vertical industries do you believe have the greatest potential to improve efficiency using your robots?

Our clients include anybody and everybody that makes a product and seeks to automate a process. We aren’t pigeon-holed into one industry, product, or type of customer. There’s a use for our robots whether it’s a food & beverage plant where they are making bags of corn, a semiconductor plant packaging small parts into assembly boards, or an automotive facility tightening screws. The entire manufacturing world is looking for a change. Companies need to make their processes more efficient, cut costs, and use labor more effectively in settings where employees can work alongside the robot. This is where I see the strength of Universal Robots. Our product addresses those needs, operates with no safety guarding, and places us at the extreme leading edge of a change in industrial automation.

What environments will your robots operate?

Our IP classification is 54. Our robots are aimed at traditional production environments but are also increasingly found outside of these.

What are some examples of good applications for your robots?

The applications run the gamut from pick & place tasks, machine tending, assembly, and packaging. Our website has a sample of the vast span of case studies.

What markets/countries are you currently in and where will you be expanding?

Our robots are sold in Europe, China, South East Asia and North America. In 2013, we’ll also widen our distributor network in South America and Oceania.

What is your sales strategy in terms of the North American market? Are you taking away shares from competitors or are you creating a whole new market for automation?

Because our robots are aimed at companies that never thought they’d be able to employ robots due to cost and complexity, we’re creating a whole new market – not taking share from an existing one.

Has it been difficult for you to create a distribution network in North America?

Since our U.S. launch at ITMS in September 2012, we’ve succeeded in creating an incredible awareness around our product in the United States. The distributors have basically lined up to sell our robots. And many potential end customers have realized that we can solve automation more easily and at a lower price point than they ever imagined.

How many distributors do you have in North America?

We currently have 16 signed distributors and a few more in the pipeline. We’re close to having most of North America covered in terms of distributors specifically addressing states and regions.

What has the interest among distributors been in terms of becoming resellers of Universal Robots? What are some of the initial responses you're seeing from distributors who are demonstrating the robot with customers right now?

There’s been a tremendous interest to become a reseller of Universal Robots and we’ve had the luxury of being able to pick and choose what we believe to be the absolute best representatives of our solution. Our distributors have been showcasing the robot for a few months now and we’re starting to see sales come in from all over the country. As our distributor, Cross Company, put it in this blog post, there are 3 reasons for the U.S. customer to employ a UR robot:

  1. Low cost of ownership
  2. Easy to deploy
  3. Portable

Read the blog here:

How do the workers typically respond when they get a robot as an "extra colleague" working right next to them?

Of course there’s often an initial hesitancy, but as soon as the employees experience how the robot relieves them from monotonous tasks and how they are often put in charge of operating robots, that hesitancy disappears. It is definitely our experience that rather than the employee losing his job, he is allocated to do more challenging, interesting tasks. This video with employee interviews from BJ Gear underscores this point:

How many robots are you shipping a month right now? How fast can you deliver?

We ship approximately 80 robots per month right now with 1,000 robots shipped in the last 12 months. Delivery time is two weeks.

Thoughts & Observations

These robots have a price significantly under $40,000, making them applicable for a very large number of applications.

This breed of robots is following a same pattern that ignited the personal computer revolution - providing a product with less power than larger offerings that adds value for a broader number of users. 

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