Robotics is full of interesting stories, and this is certainly one of those. Enrico Krog Iversen brings wide-ranging experience to OnRobot, and got his first job in robotics at Universal Robots by advertising for it. He started there as one of the first employees, as well as being an investor. He led the effort to finalize the product and bring it to market, and along the way sold the company and stayed on as CEO. He then became an investor in and executive of OnRobot. We talk about combining companies, technologies, and product capabilities—and much more—in Part 1.
FWM: We were just talking about Odense as a kind of a Silicon Valley for robotics.
EI: Yes, there are many companies around the robotic scene in Odense, a lot of startup activities, a lot of companies scaling up. I think that the robotic cluster now employs around 3,000 or 3,500 people or something like that. It’s quite a big industry for a town with a little less than 200,000 people.
FWM: There must be a lot of incubator efforts there.
EI: Yes. This actually goes back many years. All the groundwork for today’s robotic industry here happened in the 1970s. We had a very big shipyard here and they started using a lot of robotics in testing and then in a lot of different applications. The industry developed from there, and in the past 10 years or so, it has really grown into a lot of commercial success.
FWM: And now we have this vibrant industry in Odense, and we find you in the middle of it. How did you end up where you are?
EI: It was basically a complete coincidence that brought me into robotics. I had experience in a number of very different businesses: fireplaces, shipping, children’s fashion, so many diverse things. When the change to this industry happened, I was at a time in my life where I said, “I want to do something new.” I put in an anonymous ad in the biggest business newspaper in Denmark. The ad information included the countries in which I had work experience and board experience. I included an anonymous Gmail address, essentially saying, guys, if you have anything interesting, write me! One of the people who did write was looking into and investing in Universal Robots (UR, Odense, Denmark) at the time. We spoke, I looked at the very first prototype, and I said, “Okay, I think I can sell this and work with this.” I have a fully commercial background, I’m not an engineer or anything like that by training or trade.
FWM: Interesting, so your first job in this industry was with Universal Robots.
EI: Yes, I started as employee number four with Universal Robots. My colleagues were the two founders and a student worker from the local university. That was my entre into the global automation industry.
FWM: How long were you there, and what did you end up doing at UR?
EI: They basically brought me in as an investor. I had sold some other companies previously in my life. I ended up as an investor and CEO in the very early days of UR. We had the task of finalizing the product, getting ready to market, and then built the whole commercial organization around these actions. I started there in late 2008, and worked there until the summer of 2016. We sold the company to Teradyne in 2015, and I stayed for another year. Then I moved to what I’m doing today.
FWM: Most people have a mix of strengths, yet favor one half of the brain, even slightly. The engineering genius at UR was already there, and they absolutely needed a person like you to get customers, build a sales channel, all those things that a business needs to survive. You needed each other, each other’s strengths.
EI: We definitely needed each other. Even today, as in any company, we need to understand how we create value for our customers. That is key. If you don’t create value out there, you are not needed. You can have the best technical solution, or you can think that you are very smart, but it doesn’t really help you unless you’re creating value.
FWM: Did you intend to move to OnRobot after the sale of UR to Teradyne?
EI: I had planned to take quite some time off, which I’m apparently not very good at. OnRobot was a very different company at that time than it is today. It was founded by one of the very good engineers from Universal Robots. He quit his job at UR and started developing a gripper. I invested in OnRobot. At the same time, I invested in a company in Hungary, and one in California, all in robotics. I took board positions in each of these companies. I had no daily operational duties, but I was watching the companies.
After a short time, I realized that there were quite a few synergies between these three companies. If we could combine them, we could have synergies on the sales side as well as the R&D side. I started working on a plan and a strategy of merging these three companies, to result in the OnRobot of today. We did the three-company merger in June 2018. Shortly thereafter we acquired two more companies. Those five companies gave us the foundation for everything we do today.
FWM: It’s not easy to merge or acquire companies. Was it fairly easy to identify what each company could uniquely contribute to OnRobot?
EI: Yes, that was very clear. That was one of the factors of why they were brought together. We knew the value contribution of each company in the bigger picture.
FWM: What were those things?
EI: The original OnRobot had the capabilities and knowledge that centered around finger grippers. With the Hungarian company we had good knowledge around force torque sensing. And with the California company had very good knowledge of other different gripping technologies, basically the same technologies a gecko uses when it crawls on the wall. Some of the other companies brought vision competencies, soft gripping competencies, and vacuum gripping competencies. We could then combine all these competencies in one package and then start developing what we define as our one-stop shop. The different parts were very easy to identify.
FWM: From a robotics point of view, you make everything except the robot. First, you have these end effectors that are under power. Second, you have a wide variety of these, with different core strengths. Third, you have a whole new and emerging side of the business with software, WebLytics. Let’s talk about the end effectors first.
EI: Sure. We decided to go electric with every end effector we make. We don’t use compressed air or anything like that to move anything. This creates value for our customers, because the maintenance and setting up compressed air systems and compressors in factories is quite expensive. It’s expensive to install and expensive to operate.
And then it’s important to make things a lot easier in two ways. Prior to OnRobot, you would go to one company to get a gripper, another to get your vision, and a third company to get your force torque sensor. You would buy them as standalone products. They are good products, but they are not designed to work together. With OnRobot, you get these products from us and everything is designed up front to program and work together. It’s a lot easier for the integrator. It’s a lot easier for the end user. And when it’s easier, it’s also faster. And when it’s faster, you save time—and time is money.
We also looked at flexibility of the end effectors. You could go to another gripper manufacturer and get very good grippers, but if you have 25 different applications, you need 25 different grippers because you don’t have the flexibility or intelligence built into these grippers. If you have those same 25 applications and you get an OnRobot gripper, you will do all of the applications with one grip. We will just reprogram the grip to handle all the different applications. You save on your total investment and you gain in flexibility and you have a lot of savings in deployment time, especially in the redeployment of your robotic applications.
This is where we want to step in and change the game and change how people look at value creation vis a vis collaborative, robotic applications.
FWM: In fabricating and machining, particularly the small and middle market, the people who need your products probably do not have a robotic integration specialist on board. They will rely on third parties with vertical market expertise to help with the integration.
EI: They couldn’t do the integration by themselves today. In the very near future, these manufacturing companies will be able to do a lot themselves.
FWM: Even something like changing out an end effector is getting a little easier, with quick changeouts reminding me of bay mounts on cameras that started in the ‘70s when we wanted to change lenses.
EI: Yes! Even today it only takes about five seconds to change an end effector. In the future it could be done automatically via our software, taking people costs out of that activity.
FWM: We are headed toward a fascinating future. You mentioned earlier end effectors that can do any number of jobs. Are you combining the types, for example, a gripper that also has suction, or is it just that you can design something that will fit so many different applications?
EI: We combine some of the technologies. We have grippers that combine say, a normal two-finger grip with a built-in force torque sensing capabilities in the fingertips that allow you to do very precise gripping. That’s one way of combining the technology. Another way is to add vacuum to a large finger gripper for when that’s necessary. Both technologies come with the same gripper.
FWM: Of course, ultimately that addresses something: the biggest problem today in manufacturing is that the companies can’t find people to do the job. It’s a problem, yet, how nice is that, considering you run a robot company?
EI: It’s pretty nice.
FWM: It’s an enviable spot. And we’re poised on the verge of great growth, lots of opportunities. Because you’re not making big, heavy items, you’re also going to have a bit less of a problem with supply chain issues.
EI: I’m very grateful to my supply chain people right now. They are doing a wonderful job. We’re not using steel, and aluminum seems much more manageable as a resource. If you look at the electronic side, and if we had spoken three or four months ago, I would have said, yes, we plan four weeks ahead. Now, we plan more than a year ahead to secure parts. It’s definitely becoming more difficult. And the investments we have to make in inventories to maintain short lead times for our customers are significant.
FWM: You’re probably also looking at the growth curve ahead of you, maybe thinking about how you will supply products and services to this increasing demand?
EI: Yes. Next year I need to double my business based on 40 different products. And I need to tell supply chain people today what to buy and how much for each product, for what we will sell in December 2022. That’s a lot of guessing!
FWM: I suppose it’s like owning the most popular restaurant in town. How much who do we buy of this supply or that supply? I can see where it would be problematic. This brings up a very interesting point about inventory. Starting in the 1990s, Kanban/just-in-time inventory became all the rage and was fantastic assuming the supply chain cooperates. This is the first time in 30 years that it is not really cooperating. I think it’s too risky to practice these disciplines now as it was practiced then. What do you think?
EI: You need to plan differently. You need to be sure that you have multiple suppliers of the same parts. Also, instead of having one global factory for everything and then shipping around the world, you need to move your manufacturing closer to your customers. You need to make the products closer to where they will be used or consumed.
I think the big change we’ll see in global supply chain is that we will see very large factories turn into slightly smaller factories that are closer to the customers. You will end up with more local suppliers, and will have a more manageable supply chain that way, if you are a global company.
See Part 2 of our interview: https://fifthwavemfg.com/interview-with-enrico-iversen-ceo-of-onrobot-part-2/
More information: https://www.onrobot.com