Robots with a human touch
Esben H. Østergaard, founder and CTO of Universal Robots, is the pioneer of collaborative robots. The Danish inventor recognized the need for the human touch in manufacturing and has developed new ideas for industrial production.7 Sep 2018
Today Universal Robots products can be found in factories across the world. But there is no limit to the company’s ambitions. Can we expect to see UR cobots at the jeweller’s shop or perhaps doing pavement drawings?
Why not? The current period is one of changing consumer habits. Our generation is so affluent and focused on individualization that demand is growing for products crafted by hand. Cutting costs is no longer the exclusive consideration of manufacturing. Instead we must ask ourselves whether we can demand double the price despite being in a better position to meet consumer needs?
Will the human touch be reintroduced to the factory of the future?
Absolutely. Things have moved way beyond caged industrial robots carrying out automated processes to replace human labour in the workplace. Collaborative robots are now augmenting human intelligence and delivering the speed, accuracy and precision needed to create modern products, while ensuring the right mix of the human touch and technology. This is why we will see more cobots in new applications.
Do companies really need cobots?
The trend among consumers is clearly in favour of products which convey human empathy, engagement and creativity. In future consumers will also be prepared to pay more for them. For example, watches, craft beers, tables, chairs, designer items or black lava salt from Iceland. Customers accept new technology such as cobots to speed up the manufacturing process, but they want to retain the human touch.
So we can expect some big changes in industrial production?
It’s already happening. China is trying hard to keep manufacturing in the country but many foreign companies are moving back to their country of origin – and their home markets. Digitization, 3D printing and cobots, of course, are restoring local production. In future we will still have some huge factories – for example, plant producing aluminium – but we will also see many small production centres manufacturing for local markets.
You call it Industrie 5.0…
Well yes, although it is not a continuation of Industrie 4.0, but a redefinition of work and consumption – it is more a social than a technical development. We want to create jobs that are considerably more meaningful and fulfilling than the factory jobs that have occupied people for centuries. Industrie 5.0 is almost a return to pre-industrial production in a form that is possible only on the basis of the most advanced technology.
Our cobots are part and parcel of this mega trend. Our early experiences in Denmark have taught us how quickly markets change and how important it is to adapt and redefine products.
What do you mean?
I think cobots could only have been developed in a country like Denmark because instead of huge industrial plant with robotic assembly lines we have many SMEs. Our search for solutions to their problems led to the development of the cobot. History could now repeat itself.
But large companies have also bought your products – and are still buying them.
The market is developing quickly, also for our own big clients. Our business experts estimate growth of up to 60 percent, which we expect will lead to an additional two billion euros of cobot sales in Europe in the coming years.
Meanwhile more and more competitors are emerging on the market…
It is natural that other companies will want to make money in this market. There are now more than 40 competitors.
How do you think the various cobots of the future will differ from one another?
Obviously all cobots must meet the required safety standards if they are to have any market success. But there will be clear differences in terms of their programming and flexibility. The users must be able to modify the programs themselves in order to use the cobot meaningfully. For years this has been a focus of our work – for example, at our Universal Robots Academy. We train users and make them fit for the future. Companies need flexibility – in future there will be fewer robotic assembly lines.
Because production will involve smaller plant at local sites?
Perhaps. It is becoming increasingly difficult for companies to plan. For this reason robots need to be flexible and fast in order to assist humans in the development of new processes to deliver new products.
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