We continue our interview with Kristian Hulgard, General Manager – Americas with OnRobot (headquartered in Odense, Denmark, with Americas HQ in Irving, TX). At this point in business history, the challenge is not finding leads but finding a way to serve all of the prospective customers. We are in extremely high-growth mode and deployment of robots will be a major change in the way we make things tomorrow. Central to the task of minimizing deployment time are application-specific solutions, and step-saving software driving everything.
Fifth Wave Manufacturing (FWM): Kristian, the biggest trend I see right now in software is the ability to take a single object, as in object-oriented programming, take that one object and place it into a software queue and it knows what you want. With a couple of parameters set, bam, here’s an entire object-oriented program of what you want to do, and you don’t have to do a thing. All you had to do was enter the initial conditions and have the one object. Is that the idea behind OnRobot’s new software?
Kristian Hulgard (KH): That is what we call guided flow. There are some parameters you need to tell the software. For example, the part that I’m picking, where do I pick it up? Where do I place it? Are there any obstacles? There are a few parameters you need to input, but all the tedious parts of the installation process that really need very high level of expertise are gone; we try to eliminate that.
Another part of it is that the software is monitoring. We’ve been talking about Industry 4.0 for a while. I heard the other day, there was a presentation on industry 5.0. I don’t know much about it, but it is creating transparency and lets you know and monitor every single part of your application and create data. And based on that data, you can take smarter decisions. And you have to have those functions in any type of software, or at least you have to have it available for any type of application and software you use for installing robots.
FWM: How big is your scope on that? Are you including the robotic people? How far is your reach when it comes to software?
KH: Right now, and in the future, we will never go into manufacturing of robots. We partner with all robotic brands and we want help the companies to deploy the robots. However, I want to challenge the way that people install and deploy robots today. You know, the whole process today is, “Hey, I’m a manufacturing company and I want to start automating this task.” Okay. Now I call an engineering company and I’m skeptical because it’s my business and I’ve worked hard for it. I want the engineering company to make a proof of concept for me. I want drawings, I want to see everything. I want to approve budgets. I want to do all that. It takes quite a while and I’ll probably get charged a lot for it too. I get a lot of experts involved, and the project can take three to six months before it’s installed.
I want to challenge that process. I think we’ve come a long way with standardized [methods], like automation solutions that are plug and play on your manufacturing floor, but we’re not at the full potential. I want to eliminate proof of concept. Why do we have to prove something when I can take all my stuff, go into your manufacturing facility, and have it up and running in one day? Why do you want to pay for a proof of concept? Because if it doesn’t work, I’ll take all my stuff and I’ll leave.
It’s controversial, but why do we go through all this pain? You can pick up the phone and say, “Hey, come and automate this for me.” And within a week, it’s up and running. This is my prediction of the future. And people can laugh at me or whatever. My opinion is that Uber for automation will happen.
There will be a day when automation is so user-friendly, and so consumer-oriented that you have your app on your phone, and you take a picture of what you want to automate. And the next day there will be guys installing that and you just pay per cycle or pay however you want. Do you want to pay all of it up front? Do you want to own it? Or do you want to lease it or you want to pay per click or something else? It’s going to happen. I know it’s not the way we do business today, but the fact is if we have to install 10 times as many robots in five years, then we cannot do business as we do today.
FWM: Correct. Even the machine tools themselves are being leased.
KH: A separate conversation, right? How do we install and how do we deploy and how do we do it easily? I think we at least have an idea on how to solve that. So another thing is, how do we finance it? Do you want buy all of it? Because you might want to change your products in three years or four years. You don’t know how your landscape looks, unless you’re in the beverage container industry. That’s been looking pretty much the same all the time. But if you’re a metal manufacturer, your customer is going to change the product. You want to make sure that the investment you make also fits the next products.
FWM: Correct. And you have to be flexible because it’s a low volume, high turn world.
KH: Yes. These offerings, these services are actually starting to pop up. It is an emerging market right now, but it is out there. And my prediction is it’ll only become bigger. Why do I have to pay all this money up front where I can just spread out my investment across five or 10 years? And I know there’s a lot of conservative people out there that will say it’s only good for people who don’t have money, but I don’t believe that’s the truth. It depends on how your contract looks.
FWM: It’s like a car lease, the maintenance comes with it, the everything comes with it. And here’s your monthly bill.
KH: Exactly. Do you have a very dirty environment? Are you putting more wear and tear on your equipment? It might be an idea to get your free maintenance in there. There are a lot of decisions you have to make or a lot of things that needs to lead into whatever decisions you take. Very good that you brought that up, because I know that that’s going to be a bigger part of fabricating in the future.
FWM: Now let’s do our viewers a huge favor. Let’s talk about somebody who’s never put together a system, but it’s going to be easier and easier now. Back in the day, we talked about computers and the process for solving some kind of a problem with the computer. It went like this: First, define your problem. What is it that you want to do? Second, what kind of software exists to do what you want to do? Then, which operating system does it use? This became more complicated as years went on, and we first would say that it runs on UNIX, or it runs on DOS or it runs on Windows. Later, it might be something that runs in part of the SAP suite. It runs within SAP, which then runs on a certain operating system. Then, which hardware platform makes sense? All those things have to be in line. What’s the equivalent of that for robotic automation?
KH: There’s no easy answer. There probably will be an easier answer in the next five years, but it’s a jungle right now. The offerings and the landscape of offerings are huge, and the right solution is out there. Everything is possible to solve even the most complex problem you might have in your manufacturing facility. My suggestion now to any person who comes up with a problem is to find a local integrator or distributor that is exposed to a lot more automation projects and a lot more components and software than you are.
These guys will have proven projects and experience. Another thing which is very important: Don’t start with the big, grand automation project that will solve all your problems. Start simple and start with the easiest and the simplest task you have. I’ve seen people that try to solve everything at one time, and it just becomes this big monster of a project that never really ends up being a good thing. So start simple and, and get with your local supplier of automation, have a conversation. Everybody can give you some conversation and share their experience. And as owner of the business, can use your gut feeling to see if that’s something that’s smart.
Right now, the market is a big place. There’s a lot of different things to choose from. If you go with a local supplier you feel confident in and who has experience in your area, you should get a nice solution in your facility.
FWM: Again, back to computers, years ago people really didn’t touch computers. People from that department came in and set up the computers and everything. And now it’s almost a joke, someone gets a new laptop and the phone is hooked to it—we do that regularly as consumers.
KH: And we’re getting pretty well into that in automation as well.
FWM: I think so.
KH: Yeah. The first level of it was the birth of the cobot–it was safe to use, and it was easier to program. Many end users with technical knowledge, they could actually start doing their own projects, which is fantastic. Of course, there is still need to need for expertise once in a while, depending on the complexity of your problem. But now with D:PLOY [OnRobot’s new software, please see Part 1] we give the end users a tool to just do it themselves.
With the help of this software, sometimes it will be end users installing their own projects–things like CNC machine tending applications. I think a big part of that will be done by the users themselves.
FWM: Interesting, this really applies to my viewers more than anyone else, since they are the ones running machine tools in their manufacturing companies.
KH: Most of these companies in my experience have technical personnel. They already have operators that know how to run the CNC machine. That’s not easy to do. They can definitely also run the cobot or the D:PLOY application that we will introduce to them. That’s a big part of the deployment and the number of robots deployed.
FWM: Let’s say I’m a fabricator and I need to move boxes and maybe it’s a palletizing application. Maybe there are four or five different kinds [of boxes]. If a person has never done this, are we looking at using suction? Or are we looking at using pressure to grab things and use torque and pressure sensors on them? How do people sort that out?
KH: Yes, we actually have a palletizing solution, which is all the components you need besides the robot. You figure out which robot fits best to the palletizing, the boxes, the pallet, whatever you’re manufacturing, the reach, and the payloads. You basically plug it into our solution and the solution has a telescopic lift. So we can make sure that we can reach all the box positions. It has pallet sensors, so we know if the sensors are there, and we have different vacuum-based grippers. We have a big two finger gripper that can squeeze, and we will guide the end user to what tool would fit. Most of the time–80% of the time—the vacuum-based grip is the best option because it gives you the ability to stack and to squeeze the boxes as tight as possible together. If you do have a finger that grips the box on each side, of course, that finger will leave a gap between the boxes. There are boxes that cannot be lifted by vacuum. Let’s say foil wrapped bottles or ready to shelf boxes with chips bags. There are a lot of products that cannot be gripped by vacuum. So there, you would need a finger gripper.
Then, how do I get it installed and how do I program it? Right now, we have palletizing software that basically programs the robot for you. You would define a pick position. Maybe that’s a conveyor that the box comes on. Then you define the pallet positions. You can drag and drop and click around and create your pattern of boxes. You know, most companies have their own pattern in such a way that their customers can receive it. If you don’t do that, we have an automatic feature that will just populate the pallet for the highest efficiency. But let’s say you have your own pattern. You can configure that and design it in the software. Then you click go and the robot will move to those positions. Very intuitive. Easy to use. It eliminates completely the part where you have to program the robot.
FWM: I think that was at Automate, right? Yes. And we did a brief article in that as well https://fifthwavemfg.com/the-palletizer-from-onrobot-flexible-automatic-palletizing/). What have we missed in this conversation?
KH: I think we covered it well. If you’re one of the 90% of small- and medium-sized companies that don’t use automation, I highly encourage you to start looking [at automation]; the day, the time, the second that you realize that you really need it, it’s usually too late. And because you don’t, you can’t find anybody to do it and you are stuck. You have to stop manufacturing at some point because you don’t have people to do it. It’s critical to get into the game ahead of time before it becomes a problem. So I encourage you to reach out, either to us or your local integrator and get the conversation started.
FWM: Okay, we’re going to look at your shirt [which has “250 in 2025” on it], but before we do, I’d like to you to answer this. So many people see robots and they think, “That’s all about replacing people; that guy got replaced, and that other guy got replaced…” Really what does happen? Can it be a freeing thing to the person who no longer does a task but moves to higher value work instead of wearing out his bones on a manual task? Also, there are robotic things that just don’t replace people. They do new things. And that’s what I’d really like you to talk about briefly, if you could.
KH: Sure, I can elaborate on that, the old fashioned, “Hey, the robots are stealing our jobs.” The labor shortage we have is a clear example that robots are not stealing jobs. We’re actually doing the things that people don’t want to do. Once in a blue moon there might be a person sitting there on a conveyor belt, assembling something, and a robot will take over. But what we see is that that person won’t get fired. You know, they will be used in another place in the manufacturing, or they will get education and they will start servicing three or four robot systems working on the manufacturing floor, making that person’s job also more interesting, giving them a better CV, helping them educate and develop in their workspace.
If we don’t install robots, we will not be competitive versus the rest of the world. Our labor markets like California are just not competitive versus Chinese labor costs. Let’s stop being arrogant or being scared of the technology, let’s adopt and make it work for us. Technology has been tough on some markets. Uber has been tough on the taxi market, but they have created twice as many drivers having jobs. Everything comes with upsides; if people focus on the negativity, it doesn’t show the full picture.
FWM: Yes. Very quickly, what about the second part of that question, which was sometimes robots are doing things that people weren’t even doing in the first place? They didn’t necessarily take over a job. The robot may be installed to do something that wasn’t even possible with a human being.
KH: Absolutely right. In terms of manual labor, the robot is just better at it than we are. So why are we focusing on all these things that we’re not very good at? Most of our inventions we do as humankind we do because we’re lazy—and that’s fantastic! Let’s use the tools we have and the technology we have and let the robots be good at what they do.
FWM: OK, now back to your shirt. What does “250 in 2025” mean?
KH: That’s our growth goal—to grow to $250 million in 2025.
FWM: Oh, that’s not what I was thinking. I thought you were going to say 250 distributor partners.
KH: No, we will probably cross that bridge next year. We have a great team on an operational level. I’m very blessed to work with the people I do. Also, we have a very great team at the investor level. The owners and visionaries behind this company have changed the industry before. And they certainly will again [see our interview with Enrico Iversen, CEO of OnRobot: https://fifthwavemfg.com/interview-with-enrico-iversen-ceo-of-onrobot-part-1/].
FWM: Kristian, thank you for a great interview and thank you for being first on The Story of Making Tomorrow.
KH: I’m honored!
More information: https://www.onrobot.com