In this second and final installment of our interview with OnRobot CEO Enrico Krog Iversen, we talk about the similarity of markets, free training, working with machine tool vendors, and going beyond replacing people doing repetitive tasks. We also talk about the high-value sales channel that brings robotic solutions to companies, and the opportunities that lie ahead with the next generation of manufacturing workers.
FWM: Within metal manufacturing, are there certain vertical markets that have better opportunities for you than other ones? Are there things in that sector you find particularly interesting?
EI: We don’t look at verticals in that way, because vertical markets as far as robotics is concerned are not as different as people might think. If you are in one vertical, you probably think it’s unique and requires unique robotic solutions. Actually, it isn’t unique. It’s all about moving parts. You’re handling some kind of material or part. Whether you do that with one machine or the other, or whether you do that with metal or with wood or with plastic or with medicine, it really doesn’t matter. It’s the same. You might need slightly different grippers for the different materials. You might need different communication interfaces depending on your machines or your environment, and your communications needs in that environment.
I would say 80 percent of the application is the same, regardless of the vertical. We know that we need to serve every vertical, and create value for every vertical. When we look at it, it’s more about making sure that we have partners who specialize in each vertical that we have, who are very good in each specific market. We have integrators who are great on a technical level, and on a commercial level. They have the networks and the relations in that vertical that are important to generate business.
FWM: One of the interesting things you have done recently is put training materials on your website, from introductory concepts to how to actually configure a system that suits your needs. They’re free! I was curious and I took the course on press brake machine tending. Although you’re not taking a vertical look at the market, you are definitely taking a functional look at the market, and that shows up with courses organized by function, not by market.
EI: First of all, I fully agree with you. I can also tell you that we are working with some of the larger machine manufacturers to ensure that not only do we have high level integration with robots, but also with the press brakes and machine tools and whatever else you have out there. We will communicate in both directions. That will be one of our biggest advances in 2022, we will allow you to automate a lot of manual programming, a lot of the programming for these machines that is done today.
FWM: I’m guessing that will be the biggest companies, and another tier after that?
EI: All of the big machine tool manufacturers. We’re working with them now to sort out the interfaces, and it’s going well.
FWM: Good, let’s keep talking about software. There are software management environments from large companies like Amada and Trumpf, and others. The shop floor machines connect to this and report into it in real time. I’m guessing they would just use your APIs to get management information.
EI: I think we will end up varying from brand to brand. Each brand will use different protocols, and there is also a different brand-to-brand approach to how open the environment is, and how deep they allow connectivity into their software. What will be the same is the user interface, because that will be an OnRobot interface that you use for all of them. If you can do one brand, you can do the others as long as you stick to the OnRobot platform.
Our interface will be able to take data from all over the robot cell. You can start with a conveyor or whatever you have feeding the cell, plus the machine tool, and where you need to place the parts afterward. If all is good, then you can say the entire cell is working well.
FWM: Okay. And then, and then I guess in future iterations, if you have multiple work cells, it can all be combined as well.
EI: You can say we program one cell at a time. Once the cell is programmed, then we already have software that collects data from all the cells and helps you with preventive maintenance via all your manufacturing data. That is available today.
FWM: Robots are good at what they do. If you program them correctly you start them up and then really don’t have to worry about them. Yet for many people who run a manufacturing company, the biggest challenge is reducing the time between steps. I know you’ve addressed this already with the fast end effector changeover. Anything else that you’re bringing to the problem of changeover time?
EI: Depending on what your application is, you also spend a lot of time reprogramming the robot and the entire robot cell. With the software we will bring out in 2022, that time will also be significantly reduced. Instead of spending several days reprogramming a cell, you will be able to do it in five minutes. That is a significant reduction for customers.
FWM: Yes! Let’s also talk about automatic tool changers, and how those can save time as well.
EI: This is one of the things I have decided not to do at OnRobot. We could do it today if we wanted to. If you look at automatic tool changing in a robot cell, you would not need to do this very often. Very rarely would a robot need more than two tools in order to complete a task. At this time, we will not enter that area.
FWM: Mainly because the changeover is only a few seconds?
FWM: A pilot friend of mine who flew modern jets explained his job like this: “I’m up there in the cockpit with a dog. My job is to feed the dog.” Does that capture where we are with robot automation?
EI: Something like that, but I don’t think passengers are ready for automated flight just yet. Other than that, yes, he’s right.
FWM: Let’s talk about robotics as the replacement of people. We just covered a bit of that, but people are concerned about robots taking their jobs. Thus far, robots are taking jobs no one really wants. And early on, when you talked about creating and maintaining value, can robots help create higher value for the customers? Is that your vision?
EI: Very much so, but there is more to it because currently we don’t have enough people in manufacturing so that is a factor. If we look at it in two steps, like an integrator might, we come up with this: If you want to do more robot installations, you have a problem because there are not enough application engineers out there in the market. The only way you can increase and grow your business is by automating or simplifying the way you do every robotic installation.
OnRobot is already in countries and markets with very high standards of living now on a global scale. When the people in India and China, and Africa, and the rest of Asia, want to consume like in Europe or the U.S., there are simply not enough people to manufacture all of these things. That’s especially true if you want to manufacture in an economical yet safe way. If we all want to enjoy the same level of life we need to automate, because that’s the only way we can manufacture enough things for everybody.
FWM: There is still a lot of people-powered physical work in India. Is India a growth market for OnRobot, and is China?
EI: China is definitely a growth market. Most of China now is on a salary level that is equal to, or above the U.S. [China’s average manufacturing salary is nearing $40,000 USD] It’s actually cheaper to manufacture in the U.S. than in eastern China right now. India is not yet a big market for us, but they have good growth and they understand the need to automate right up front. They skip some of the steps that we went through, and say that they won’t have all of these labor-intensive setups, they will go right into automation and as a result, they’ll move much faster.
FWM: It’s like in Malaysia, they have such a modern telecom infrastructure in part because they did not have to be backward compatible with 120 years’ worth of infrastructure.
EI: Exactly, yes. Another example is, why is digital payment from your phone so big in eastern Africa? Because they went straight into it. They skipped so many interim steps that you and I have gone through.
FWM: Yes! It’s very interesting. Now, let’s talk about applications that are not about replacing people. It’s easy to imagine a robot doing something a person does, but let’s talk about what a robot can do that a person or teams of people cannot do.
EI: A robot or robots can be very precise. And they can easily coordinate movements in a way that is better than what most people can do. On a purely industrial level, robots can make things easier, but it’s not like they will do things that people cannot do. In performing some tasks, people need to dress in protective gear to do certain tasks. It’s easier to send in the robots. I don’t know if I can say that robots can do things people cannot do, but they are definitely better suited for certain tasks. Surgery is a wonderful example. You can be very, very precise using robots, and do things that only a very few surgeons can do.
FWM: Yes, here the DaVinci surgical robot is very popular.
EI: Yes, and I think that will definitely continue to develop.
FWM: Bringing these solutions to an industrial market, you have an option to include a sales/solution channel. There are multiple points of integration for robots. In one case, the integration happens at the machine tool maker, they sell solutions with robots pre-integrated. Another is the kind of integrator partners you mentioned earlier, these are the integrators with vertical market expertise. And finally, we include larger manufacturing companies who have the need and expertise to do this internally. Would you please touch on each of those solution sources?
EI: There are relatively few machine tool manufacturers where you sell directly and they buy your products to integrate into a solution. Buying a machine tool does not create any value, and a robot arm by itself creates no value. If you want to get the best out of it, you have to integrate it using one of the three ways that you mention. You can have your internal engineering capabilities. Some very large companies have that and there are some very large companies who can do that. Very few small companies can, although there are some small companies that are very good technically and do this.
But as you also said, few manufacturing companies do this. In each market the distributor/integrator is a little bit different in how it’s set up. It’s also true that integrators are a key part of most robot installations today. They will be a key part in the future too. No matter how good the software is, and how much the software can automate everything, you still need to develop the physical cell. You need to install the robot. You need to choose the right gripper for the application and click it on, as easy as that is. You need to connect to the conveyor, you need to connect to the machine tool. There is a lot of physical installation involved—making sure all the electrical interfaces work, for example.
We are not trying to put the integrator out of business, and we are not trying to go direct to the end users. We’re trying to make it easier for the end user and the integrator to do business together. That’s where I really see the market. If I wanted to, I could go knock on doors and sell to very big companies and say I have the best grippers and vision systems or the best force torque sensors in the world. But if I cannot turn those things into a solution for them, I have not created value. For me, the integrator is really the key in all of this.
FWM: How many of these integrator partners do you have currently?
EI: About 600 globally.
FWM: You’re probably in many international markets too.
EI: Yes, we are covering all of Europe, most of the Americas, and all of the Asia Pacific region.
FWM: Good. Now, let’s talk about the future. Kids have been interested in robots for a long time, and so many schools have robotics programs. Outside of schools there are robotics contests. Robotics clubs have robot wars, etc. We need more of those kids to come up and do robotics for a living. What do you think is the best way to do this?
EI: I think it’s a lot of communication. What are the opportunities within robotics, and what are these jobs all about? We need to get people interested in what’s happening on our side. We need to work with a lot of schools, and a lot of universities. We need to make our tools and software available to schools at a very affordable price to all the educational institutions. We need to give the young people an opportunity to play with this and get interested and see possibilities. I can do this and be a little smarter, and when I graduate, I can call Enrico for a job. Making sure they have state of the art “toys” is very important.
FWM: Enrico, thank you very much for your time and for this very interesting discussion.
EI: It was my pleasure.
For Part 1 of this interview, see https://fifthwavemfg.com/interview-with-enrico-iversen-ceo-of-onrobot-part-1/
More information: https://onrobot.com/en