In this Part 1 of 2, Universal Robots’ (Odense, Denmark) President Kim Povlsen talks about what brought him full circle in the robotics industry, the vertical markets driving robotics, new applications, and addressing supply chain issues.
FWM: Thank you for making time for the interview. You look like a fairly young man—how did you arrive at being the president of a company with a high profile in the robotics world?
KP: Sure. I grew up in Odense (Denmark), where I’m sitting right now, and where Universal Robots was founded and still has its headquarters. I don’t live there anymore, but I grew up in the city, and lived there for more than 30 years. I graduated from the university here where the founders of Universal Robots worked together at the start of the company.
I am a robotics engineer. I always have been deeply fascinated with robotics, and I went that direction for my education. But back in the days when I was completing my education, there wasn’t that much to do regarding robotics in this city just yet. It was still the early days. The guys who founded Universal Robots had just started working with the future product at the time I graduated. They sold their first product in 2008.
I did some work on one of their prototypes while I was still in university. It was made by LEGO! This is now in the office just below mine. That robot was the first prototype.
A lot of the people from my class did a lot of work on that model. It was a way to try to do movements for the first time, but it was done in LEGO and it was exceptionally well done. You could program it. That was the beginning of the robotic arm of Universal Robots. And so, I always had my eye out for the robotics industry and followed it very closely as it started to blossom in the city of Odense.
FWM: Did you start at Universal Robots, then?
KP: No, I began my career by working at Schneider Electric, an energy management and tech company. I spent 13 years there and was in a lot of different positions; I started out as an engineer. I next moved into product management, to the business side. I ran a couple of businesses within the corporation. It was a great place, and I had a blast working there.
Still, I always have my eye on robotics, thinking one day I would come back. There was an opportunity one day and I was very excited to get the opportunity to work again in such a great company with so much innovation. So, basically, that’s how I got here!
FWM: When did you join Universal Robots?
KP: I joined in March this year . I’m still a rookie!
FWM: Thank you for that background. Historically, has Universal Robots been tied into a single or small number of vertical markets? For example, some robot companies spring from welding applications.
KP: The sweet spot for Universal Robots was, and still is, metal and machining. From machine tending to picking and placing within certain machine processes. In the last few years, the vertical markets that we operate in have been expanding quite dramatically in a positive way. Of course, we see opportunities I welding, dispensing, screwdriving, sanding, grinding, and we see things in the pharma industry as well.
We see incredible amounts of innovation around us from our partners that are going through an incredible transformation. They take our solution like a collaborative robot with all of the open interfaces, and spend a lot of time and effort in creating innovative solutions.
Years ago, we never thought we would have, for example, collaborative robots in welding. I don’t think anybody thought that would be a thing, but now it’s becoming a really big business. The welding OEM companies that we work with have this opportunity and capability to create a more or less standardized solution that they can then scale through the welding market, being experts in welding. We are not experts in welding, we’re experts in building robots. Partnering with other companies that have this kind of expertise has shown to drive incredible innovative solutions for the market, which is great.
FWM: You’re already working with welding solution vendors?
KP: Yes. In the U.S., Vectis Automation [Loveland, CO] is one company we like to bring forward because they’re doing an amazing job in both innovation and deploying support later on.
That is in the U.S., and of course there is more than one partner in the U.S. in each region. Each region has its own OEMs that really do well in their segments. Part of our job is to standardize our approach with the robots so we can help a larger number of customers.
FWM: U.S., I’m sure, is but one market.
KP: Yes, we’re working in 60 different countries. We see an exceptional amount of desire and also execution in automation. We see this across all those borders.
FWM: Yes, in a way it seems like the global market is coming to you, or at least conditions are favorable for Universal Robots right now. Manufacturers are still having a very hard time finding workers—a continuation of an existing trend. One of the answers of course is to use automation to solve some of those problems. So here you are in the driver’s seat of this market, with the opportunity to manufacture and sell so many robots. And yet, simultaneously we have the supply chain pinch. What do you do about that, what is a reasonable action plan?
KP: You’re right, it’s exactly what’s happening right now. Across the world, we see a significant labor shortage. It’s not just in the U.S., it’s all across the world–but it’s very strong in the U.S.
The labor shortage is driven by a couple of things that we have experienced. First, we do have an aging workforce at the moment. Second, the pandemic has been a factor in people deciding to retire. Third, the younger generation stepping into the workforce has different expectations of the type of work they want to do. They are questioning the value of just handling things, moving from a table to a machine and back out–it’s going to be harder and harder to find people in the workforce that are willing to do that kind of job.
To your last point, there is a supply chain challenge across the world for every company that manufactures things. Of course, we have great support from Teradyne, which owns our business group. We have been able to weather the storm, and we have a great supply chain team internally. We have been able to meet customer demands. However, I don’t want to oversell it. It’s a daily struggle to get the parts you need when you need them.
Some manufacturers are turning to onshoring or reshoring. They are making decisions that bring general fabrication closer because these challenges won’t stop in the near future. The effort to bring things closer meets today’s different production criteria. Most people are in a high-mix, lower volume situation and you need more locally sourced parts. That requires you to be flexible in the way you produce things. This is another driver of collaborative automation.
FWM: That’s really interesting. What are some of those changes that you see where you have to include flexibility? What are people doing?
KP: Let’s talk about the situation in metal machinery. Subcontractors are building things for others. Now, maybe the contractor or OEM might start doing it in house with a CNC machine. Your reaction as a small to medium sized business must be to have a much higher mix than you’re used to. You need to build a lot of different things, depending on the demand you have right now. Sometimes you need to be able to scale up. Sometimes you need to have a very low volume, high mix production schedule. You need flexible automation and that’s right in our wheelhouse. You can redeploy the automated resources in your shop, you can reprogram the robots to do other things. They’re relatively simple to get started with new deployment. It also scales really well.
FWM: Thank you. We already talked about the challenges of the supply chain for a growing market. Let’s talk about an internal issue now. More people are convinced that a robot or a cobot is a good idea. We have this increase in sales. Is Universal Robots prepared for this increase in orders from a sales and marketing point of view? I don’t think a direct sales force could handle this increase.
KP: Great question. Our sales model has been built around working with our partners or distributors. Across the world today we have more than 800 distributors and system integrators. We work very closely with them. So our model is really to work through distribution. We have our own marketing events, of course, but we provide leads back to distribution. This model has worked really well for us over the years. We’ve been refining it over time, but this is the way we managed to scale and have localized expertise in the different regions.
FWM: It must be really interesting working with some of these system integrators who are almost like your own R & D people, they may be finding new uses for robots, right?
KP: Yes, they do, and they’re incredibly innovative. That’s something that makes this business even more fun because they come up with ideas we didn’t think of. We even get feedback on the main robotics—and we listen. From time to time, we make improvements to our product based on that input, because the people have high expertise in robotic solutions and high expertise in their own vertical markets. They can build standardized solutions aimed at their customers in these markets.
We see a lot of evolution in the channel, and certainly some integrators are becoming OEMs. We end up becoming a player in multiple verticals, with multiple OEMs, instead of one. We also see distributors becoming integrators. It’s very lively market right now, a lot of things are transforming and people are finding their places.
I think also the pandemic has kind of accelerated a lot of the things going on. The [sales] channel has become more able to drive positive outcomes for their customers. Even the customers evolve. It’s very positive; the customer wins and that’s what we want.
FWM: What are one or two of the coolest applications you’ve seen? You can name names, or not–your choice.
KP: I really like some of the welding applications. The way they’re built is just incredible. They took the cobot and put the whole welding cell around it. And they are using our open interfaces; we have open APIs for pretty much everything in our software, and we keep adding to that. And as we keep adding, it’s going to be more and more open. You can just show the cobot what to do, make a few adjustments, and you’ve got it.
We also see an increased demand of applications where multiple robots are used. We may have a few robots picking the pieces, and another one that actually works on the piece. Or the application might be inspection. It might be something else—the theme is different robots working together. When they are incorporated like this, it’s beautiful and impressive. It’s teamwork at its best.
Over the last year, we had a dramatic technology improvement. We are selling something new to our partners, integrators, OEMs, and so on, and this is the capability to do random picking. We use machine vision and a little bit of AI technology to do it. Our product name is ActiNav. You can pick up parts from a bin filled with random metal parts [the company displayed this at Fabtech Chicago 2021]. Essentially you have a big box of stuff and the system can just pick it and put it into the machine perfectly every time.
Go to Part 2.
More information: www.universal-robots.com