Joe Campbell is head of Strategic Marketing and Applications Development at Universal Robots (Ann Arbor, MI is the U.S. headquarters). A self-described “old robot guy,” he has many years of experience in industrial automation and in particular, robots. It’s a topic he can and does discuss all the time at trade shows and with customers who need solutions.
We caught up with Joe at the Automate event in Detroit. We talked about future cobot design and how the UR20 will influence that effort, the role of software in ease of use for robots, how the cobot helps in a mass customization market, and many other topics.
Fifth Wave Manufacturing: Hello everyone. We’re at Automate 2023 and we’re at the Universal Robots Booth, and we’re catching up once again with Joe Campbell. And Joe does lots of things, among which is talking to people like us.
Joe Campbell, Universal Robots: I’m happy to do that. It’s always the best part of the show.
FWM: We talked a year ago at this show, and so much has gone on during that year.
JC: It’s been a busy year.
FWM: You guys have changed the design of the robots. You’ve introduced the UR20 and there’s more to come, but catch us up if you would just in into 2023.
JC: Well, I think the new UR20 was big. Now, we’re gearing up for heavy production shipments. What makes it so interesting is it’s not just a bigger, stronger robot. All the joint architecture’s been redesigned, and it’s about half of the part count, which is an incredible accomplishment. We’re really expecting great things. It’s also our fastest robot.
FWM: You even routed some of the external wiring internally, correct?
JC: Completely. The cable harness has been redone. What’s important about that is that is the baseline for all of our next generation. The engineering team has got their hands full, finishing up the UR20 and getting them full production, but they fill the other products with that same approach.
FWM: One gets the picture of someone going in and saying, okay guys, we have a blank slate.
JC: Yes, let’s start over. And they did. We set very aggressive goals and we knew we didn’t just want to increase the power. We really needed to take next step. For us, this was the fifth generation. The other thing that’s really evolved this year is the emergence of application solutions built on our cloud. We’ve got arc welding solutions, and we’re introducing spot welders. We’ve got dispensing solutions, material handling, machine tending, case packing, palletizing. The key is they’re all leveraging the platform.
The platform really has two components to it. One is our ease of use where end users feel extremely comfortable approaching the product, and on the back end there is some highly sophisticated development. So when you see a welding cell, for example, that really simplifies all this complex welding, that was all built on the platform.
FWM: Yes, software. That’s one thing that’s helping you guys march forward so quickly.
JC: It is. I’m an old robot guy, but at the end of the day, people really don’t want to buy robots. They want to buy solutions. And the way you get solutions is to engage with the subject matter experts. We know how to solve very narrow sets of problems, very specific ones.
FWM: You have a whole program like that, right?
JC: It’s called UR Plus. And it started off years ago basically for peripherals and accessories. We really focused on grippers and sensors and things like that. Over the years, it’s evolved to the point now that that program has total solutions in areas like arc welding or smart dispensing or palletizing. And I think that’s going to key to this next generation of growth. Our customer base is telling us that.
FWM: Speaking of which, you’ve been in the States for a while, but it hasn’t been anywhere near as long as a lot of competitors here. Tell us about your growth curve. You don’t have to do numbers, but percentages. What, how’s that been?
JC: I can’t speak too specifically. What I will say is we still anticipate heavy growth in this robot space. Teradyne’s (Universal Robots’ parent company) new CEO, Greg Smith, believes that we have not penetrated even close to 10 percent. He thinks it’s actually less than five percent. And we think those opportunities are going to keep coming because of the manufacturing labor situation.
FWM: Yes. For the next five years, I can’t see this doing anything except doubling maybe twice.
JC: I think the number that shocked me was in the first quarter, the total economy had filled about 900,000 jobs, but only 1.4% of those were in manufacturing.
JC: We’re still really having trouble with attracting younger generations to come into manufacturing. And, you know, part of solving that problem is to get rid of the dull, dirty and dangerous jobs. Let the technology be interesting.
FWM: We’re going to hit a point where the people you sell to are buying this the way that they would buy a hammer. They’re not there yet.
JC: It’s getting close. Yeah. And that’s a concept where a cobot is a tool.
JC: So if you’re a contract fab shop, or weld shop, you’ve got a lot of different tools in your portfolio, and a cobot could just be one of them. You deploy it where you need it. The key is to keep it flexible enough to deploy and redeploy very quickly and use that whole paradigm.
JC: It really makes a difference. The truth is, 90% of the businesses, the manufacturing businesses in the US have less than a hundred employees. These are not companies that are going to have robotics, or advanced robot programmers on staff. That’s not what they want. They’re in the business of welding, packaging, or assembly, and they want to buy tools for those applications.
FWM: That’s true even though the US market is one of mass customization. Even with a cobot welder, you grab the thing, do some start/stop points of the weld, hop in the software and there’s one job done. You can put a hundred jobs in there, in probably a couple days’ time.
JC: The old paradigm always was when you try to sell automation into a high mix, low volume shop out there, I can do it faster than you can program. Because you mentioned welding, you can set up a new weld, a medium complexity part in a matter of minutes. Welders don’t want to make 300 brackets and toss them in the barrel; it’s not very satisfying.
FWM: Well, yes, a lot of welders are very right-brained people who also produce art that they weld. And I can see where that would be unsatisfying.
JC: They want to work on complex weld—which actually is good for the weld shop because those are higher margin. Our philosophy is, let’s knock out easy stuff and let your skilled welders be flexible and handle complex welds.
FWM: What kinds of questions are people bringing to you that give you a hint toward what you would be doing in the future?
JC: One area of small growth, but huge potential is in building trades, in construction. We have a partner out on the west coast called Canvas (www.canvas.build), and they have built a system to do drywall finishing. Now have you’ve ever done remodeling at your house?
FWM: Yes, and I need more right now.
JC: The drywall portion is the worst. Canvas has come up with a drywall system.
JC: Another company, Hilti, has come up with an overhead hammer drill system for mounting pipes and racks and anything that hangs overhead. Before automation, you had a guy on a scaffold with a hammer drill, with his hands above his head. This is not a good day. But now we’re automating, so I think we’re going to see that trend, because they’re still having difficulty in the construction business attracting workers. Another company called Okibo (www.okibo.com) is doing painting on a similar model: wheel in a motor cart, global autonomous robot, define the room by CAD, the system scans the room to validate the orientation and dimensions and it replaces the paint. It sprays it or rolls it.
FWM: Which will be very interesting! Alright, Joe, well I can’t wait to see what’s up later this year at FABTECH with you guys.
JC: There’s always something new. There’s going to be more. Nice to see you again, thanks Dave.