As robots are taking on more ‘human’ capabilities and traits such as sensing, dexterity, memory and trainability, Universal Robots’ cobots (collaborative robots) are helping companies to raise productivity by combining human skill with robotic technology. If one removes complexity in robotics, then more companies (especially SMEs) will adopt robots in their production plants. This is exactly what Universal Robots (UR) intends to do with its cobots, says Jürgen von Hollen, President, Universal Robots A/S. In a freewheeling interview with Rakesh Rao, he explains how cobots could transform the manufacturing landscape with simple, yet highly effective solutions.
Please provide us a background and history of Universal Robots.
Founders of Universal Robots while pursuing their PhDs wanted to develop adaptive robots using existing robotic technology. Soon they realised that market was making automation and robotics which were very complex and cumbersome. Complexity was hindering the growth of the market, as robots would be used only by large companies who had access to resources (financial as well as technical) and vast engineering workforce. Flexibility was missing in robotic technology.
They decided to develop robots which will be collaborative, easy-to-use, flexible and available at price-points that will make mass adoption easier. With this, we invented a new niche market called collaborative robots (cobots).
The focus was on small and medium sized companies – a market which was never addressed by automation. Universal Robots has stayed true to this vision. Accordingly, we offer products with payloads of 3-kg, 5-kg and 10-kg. Efforts have been put in to reduce complexity involved in application of robots.
Many of the traditional players in robotics never realised that the market for flexible robots was significant. The market of cobots is growing faster than expected.
We believe UR has 60 per cent market share in cobots globally. While the market for cobots in 2017 was estimated to be approximately $ 300 to 400 million, it is expected to grow (depending upon which market research study one looks at) to $ 2 to 7 billion by 2021. The potential has not gone unnoticed with many new companies entering the market. In the last 18 to 24 months, about 18 new cobot companies have entered the market.
All these developments validate our original thesis that there is unmet need for automation and robotics in small and medium companies.
For us, growing from $ 99 million in 2016 to $ 170 million in 2017 - a 72 per cent increase over 2016 performance - is evidence to the fact that this market is here to stay. This is just a beginning as only 10 per cent of the market knows about the potential of cobot technology. It’s our challenge to make remaining market (about 90 per cent) aware of the benefits of cobots.
Which regions/countries have been key contributors to the growth?
Awareness about cobots is high in those regions/countries that were first to adopted modern automation technologies. Countries such as China, who are clear about their national agenda on automation and robotics are definitely aggressive in adoption of cobots. Companies in Europe and USA have heavily invested in high-end automation at their production facilities. Hence, they may not be eager to make additional invest in cobots.
On the other hand, barrier to adoption of new technology is low in Asian countries as level of automation is not high (as compared to Europe or USA). Manual labour is prevalent in many of the growing Asian economies and, thus, they are ready to invest in new production technology, such as cobots.
Also, companies in these countries are hungry for growth and are ready to compete globally by incorporating state-of-the-art technology for making quality products.
If I look at India, there are SMEs who are struggling to compete and I see our technology as an equaliser. It is tool that allows them to become efficient like large company. They can apply automation to a process that has never been automated before. By adopting our technology SMEs can compete not just locally but also globally. Thus, I see huge potential for Universal Robots in India.
As mentioned, major market for UR is SMEs sector. Is this sector contributing more to sales revenue growth?
When we started, our main focus was small and medium companies. But, as awareness was low about the benefit of cobots, SMEs were slow to adopt in the initial years. On the other hand, large companies were quick to adopt cobots, as they knew about the advantage of automation and had technical expertise to integrate cobots in their existing production line. So large companies were first movers in the adoption of cobots.
If you look at our global revenue, large and small and medium industries contribute equally. In case of India, ratio could be 80:20 in favour of large companies. However, our focus still remains on SMEs as we believe that the mass market for cobots is SMEs sector (a market which has huge untapped potential), and not large companies.
Contribution of SMEs to our revenue is set to rise as these companies realise the benefit of cobots to raise productivity and competitiveness.
With manufacturing moving towards Industry 4.0, what will be the role of cobots?
We are talking about Industry 5.0, a shift from mass production to mass personalisation. In the next stage of industrial revolution, we will see humans being put back into production line and collaborating with robots.
A study by MIT shows that collaboration between human and robots provides much more value than human and robots working independently. So we believe that if you take complexity out and make robots a tool that humans can use, then it is the most empowering thing to do. This is what we are doing with cobots, which is in line with our business statement that says ‘Empowering People’.
What is the impact of new manufacturing technologies such as 3D printing, on cobots market?
As technologies such as 3D printing, sensors, etc mature, market will open up much quicker. I believe in the power of combination of technologies. New technologies and their combinations are leading to creation of new production processes and disruption in business models. They are transforming the workplace.
What are your targets for 2018? How do you view India as a potential market for cobots?
We grew more than 70 per cent last year and we wish to grow at the rate this year. Globally, we are looking minimum 50 per cent annual growth over the next few years. It is a challenging, yet realistic target given the rising demand for cobots globally. With new applications being developed for cobots and more SMEs adopting cobots in their production process, we should be able to maintain the growth momentum. Growth also depends on the region. While there are regions that have been growing at 150 per cent, there are matured markets that are growing at 50 per cent or less. Then there are new markets like India, where demand is picking up pace.
We started our operations in India in February 2016 and are witnessing 100 per cent growth since then. We have about 400 cobots installed in India, with Bajaj being our largest customer. While we started in automotive and auto component segment, we see lot of potential in FMCG (for palletizing and secondary and primary packaging application) and electronics.
As of now, we are aspiring for triple-digit growth in India. Installed base for cobots in India is still very small, thus offering huge potential for the company. We are also looking at supplying cobots to neighbouring countries of India.