We continue the interview with Universal Robots’ (Odense, Denmark) President, Kim Povlsen, who offers a First Commandment of Robotics, machine vision and autonomously-guided factory vehicles, dealing with system complexity, and “onboarding” robots. Looking for Part 1? It’s here.
FWM: Yes. And it’s interesting that part of the world has so much expertise in machine version. Northern and northwestern Europe has a lot of expertise in that because so many machine vision technologies come from there.
KP: Correct. The last thing is this: We are working closely with our sister company MiR [Mobile Industrial Robots, also a Teradyne company, also in Odense]. We’re working together on a lot of great applications and we’re working together to improve the technology. We want to make it easier to make applications such as putting a six-axis cobot arm on top of the AMR [autonomous mobile robot]. So now you have a robot that can drive around safely picking things up and delivering them elsewhere. It’s a very interesting change in production.
FWM: That’s really cool, they are like self-directed AGVs, then.
KP: We actually use MiR robots in our own production. We have these cars running around delivering parts, it’s a real sight to see at our headquarters. They are fully autonomous. You tell them what they need to do, and then you let them drive and they’re safe and you’re safe. They know where you’re going. They drive around here or if you’re in the way, they wait and let you pass.
FWM: It’s a cool step forward, and it brings up a related topic. These days working alongside a robot is a dynamic experience, you can walk up to a working robot, and as you get closer it slows down what it’s doing for your safety. If you get close enough, it stops what it’s doing. Really a sensor-driven capability. A mixed robot/person environment seems inevitable. What things are happening to make this mixed environment safer, and maybe even more enjoyable?
KP: Our vision is this: we want to create a world where people work with robots and not like robots. It’s at the core of everything we do that our robots are safe to be close to. Naturally, we are also aggressively investing in innovation in the area of making robots an even simpler, better experience.
To do anything with robots where they are working in close proximity to people, you need to get safety ratings. The next step, then, it how can we make it even easier for a manufacturer who uses collaborative robots to have these safety-rated applications. I think that’s the next step. It’s not quite in the market yet, but watch for really cool stuff coming in the not-so-distant future.
FWM: You’ve got my interest to see what those things will be. I would like to go a little out of turn in my questions and ask this one now: within my children’s lifetime, will there be a 10 Commandments of Robots? What do you think would make a good start to that?
KP: Maybe it’s back to the statement I gave you, maybe one of the commandments is that people should work with robots and not like robots. You’ve probably heard the three D’s that we like to use: robots can do the dull, dirty, and dangerous tasks so that they are not performed by people anymore. Those things are too straining and they wear people down physically and psychologically.
A lot of forward-thinking companies are looking at robots as not replacing people. Robots augment the capability of the company’s growth. We see a lot of cases where people who used to work like robots are now robotic operators, and over time, they build great expertise in having the robots do the tasks. We now see different types of jobs evolving in companies as they deploy collaborative automation. People need to work with robots, not like robots, that’s the First Commandment.
FWM: That is a great statement and a good start.
KP: It is also very important that we never stop raising the bar for what is possible and how we can help the world become a better place with these things. We always want to try to strive to push the boundaries of innovation—to continuously reinvent automation. And this is one of the things that gets me to work every day. How do we make work better and more interesting by pushing the boundaries of technology? I think that needs to be an important cornerstone of robotics in the future. Robotics has looked pretty similar for a lot of years, I would say that at Universal Robots, we see our job like this: We invented the collaborative robot. We invented a lot of these things that you see today, the simplicity of it and so on. But we are just getting started. We need to keep pushing the boundary because we don’t even know what’s going to be possible tomorrow.
FWM: Let’s look at ease of use on the outside versus complexity contained on the inside. Let me explain: Computing used to be all about MS DOS. As time went on, we got Windows and we simply couldn’t do a lot of what Windows 11 does in DOS. As it became easier to do things on the computer with a graphical user interface, the more complexity was hidden—to the tune of millions of lines of code. The same holds true in manufacturing. When we get new, easier capabilities, the flipside is more unseen complexity. Do you agree?
KP: Yes, I think you’re right. What makes Windows or any other operating system great is when they become platforms for an ecosystem. But think about it. How much do you actually use the core features of Windows? You use the applications that run on Windows. You’re using an Office package right now. We’re using Zoom developed by somebody else. The success is really the ecosystem around it. That’s what makes it incredible. It has all happened because they built it as a platform. Further, they supported the ecosystem and they kind of cherished and grew the ecosystem around them to make people successful by using the platform.
It’s the same thing we’re doing. It is a key part of our value proposition at Universal Robots. We’re creating this ecosystem around us called UR+, and today we have 292 partners creating all types of software, hardware, and application peripherals on our robots.
How do we manage that today? And how do we bring that ecosystem to life? Our job is to take some of that complexity and put it inside the platform, so that everybody around us can really build on the platform and be successful. We are not alone; we are 293 companies making cool stuff. All these partners are bringing brilliant innovations to the platform, and these help the customers and help them and us.
FWM: Thank you. Please answer this one if you would: Do your customers tend to think of robots as human replacements, and the job actions as a series of dynamic Cartesian coordinates? In other words, in your conversations do you have to remind people to think in four dimensions instead of three dimensions?
KP: Can you be more specific?
FWM: Sure. I think in robot integration, people think of recognizing and grabbing parts from a bin, putting them over there, and people get stuck looking at the what and where of things. Robot integration needs to consider the when of things just as much. And this can easily lead to a failure to save time between steps, which is all the rage right now because machines tools are so fast.
KP: Yes, that is a big deal. This is especially true in machine tending. A good example is CNC machining, when you need to change parts and the parts have different dimensions. What is the time that it takes an operator to move from one part to another? That’s a big deal, especially if you’re dealing with high-mix, low-volume type of production which we see a lot with our small and medium-sized enterprises, where, as you know, we focus a lot of effort. Our innovation in software comes into play right here because our job is to make it as simple as possible to deploy the code but also to enable the operations part of the deployment.
If you do machine tending for a CNC machine, you want to change the sizes of the ports and you want to do that as easily as possible without being a programmer, right? So that’s what you were saying before about complexity. We need to make things easier than they are today.
There is a second piece that we also see increasingly happen with small and medium enterprises: they need to redeploy the entire robot to do something different because they might have a few cobots, but they need to manage, let’s say 10 tasks with five cobots over time, because you are not doing the same thing every day. You need to have a completely different application, a different program running. So how can we make that as easy as possible as well for the customer? That’s also a big focus of ours, the redeployment piece, because we are seeing that in the high-mix, low-volume type of applications out there.
FWM: In human resources departments now, there’s the process called onboarding where you have a new person coming in, and you give them resources and plan their first days and weeks to make sure everything they need to know is covered. Do you formalize such a process for people integrating robots into their workplaces?
KP: Yes. We have an award-winning academy program where you can choose online academy conferences. If you like, we can also offer in-class, in-person content. We have more than 80 classrooms around the world, and we work through partners. You can get training in robotics, but you can also get specific training around specific applications.
It’s a big focus for us to continue to educate the customers because we see them get a lot of value from learning how to use the technology and getting tips and tricks of how to get started easily. Even after they enroll and get used to the concepts, how can we help them make their process even smoother and better? We see opportunities for that, and we are spending a lot of effort in that. We have had the academy training for a couple of years now.
FWM: I would guess that in the meantime your people who are customer-facing people are amassing valuable information about customer issues in integrating robots and even business and production processes.
KP: Yes. The best thing we can do is to help our customers as much as possible on their journey. And of course, the more we know about the challenges they face, the better we can support them, together with our partners the distributors and integrators. The more we can share knowledge, the better.
More information: www.universal-robots.com