In April 2022, LVD Company nv (Gullegem, Belgium) acquired the solutions business unit of KUKA Automatisering + Robotics nv (Houthalen-Helchteren, Belgium) to launch LVD Robotic Solutions bv. The move was done to extend LVD’s expertise and market reach in robotics automation.
Core areas of focus will include standardized robotic solutions and new development. The engineering and project management staff of KUKA BeNeLux become part of LVD Robotic Solutions. The sales and service portion are not part of the sale. LVD also acquires the business unit’s 7000-square meter facility.
Fifth Wave Manufacturing spoke with Matt Fowles, LVD’s Group Marketing Director, about the acquisition.
Fifth Wave Manufacturing (FWM): One of the emerging aspects of being in the early fifth wave is that we see major manufacturers like LVD becoming systems integrators, of a sort, of their own systems.
Matt Fowles, LVD (MF): Yes. Let me explain a bit, we’ve been working together with KUKA BeNeLux Solutions for a long time. They have been a specialist in the solutions side of the business. They’re a robotics company, they’ve been selling and servicing robotics to a very wide variety of different industry sectors. They have a lot of knowledge on sheet metal and metalworking applications, and in particular, bending.
We have co-developed some products, particularly software solutions. We have a product called CADMAN-SIM. It eliminates all of the robot teaching. Everyone is struggling to find people as it is, let alone a specialist robot programmer. We could see this was an ongoing challenge, and that’s why we developed CADMAN-SIM with them. We see the future as having no robot teaching and getting from art to part as quickly as possible.
FWM: Yet many robot vendors are touting the value of being able to teach robots. Your point, though, is if you don’t have people doing the work that the robots are supposed to do, you don’t have people to teach them either.
MF: Yes, that’s it. It’s a combination of things. On the bending side, we know that it’s a complex process. With CADMAN-SIM, we say, oh, here’s the digital part. Let’s work it out, see whether we can make this bend first. We look at it in the software and let’s say it turns out that we can bend it. Then very cleverly CADMAN-SIM says, okay, you’re going to do this bend. I’m going to need to move the robot like this to be able to manipulate the part. It can do all of that and also create what we call the collision-free paths.
If you take things through the conventional ways of programming, it’s difficult because parts are getting much more complex in bending. On the other hand, CAD systems are getting much easier to use. What’s happening is that people are making far more intricate parts and they want to go for one-piece design if they can. This eliminates welding, bolting, spot welding, etc. That makes things even more challenging for people to actually manufacture. You’re making parts even more difficult to make than they were before.
As a result, we’re putting more intelligence into the software and into machine controls, at the same time making the technology easier to use and more powerful. People are using robots because maybe the parts are heavier than they used to be, and maybe there’s a better place for the human to be involved, downstream from that process. It’s all about the flow when you look at the art to part process.
These days it’s all about smaller batches, so it all compounds itself. If you look at robots historically, people tried to automate everything. You have an automated cell, which can automate everything, but it costs a lot of money. It’s quite complex. The risk of failure is high because of the complexity.
The only way in the past that you could make it work was volume. And that’s not what’s happening in the marketplace today. What is happening is stock inventory is going down. There’s more pressure on the supply chain. You must be able to make smaller batches of bigger variety in a quicker period of time. If you introduce faster programming and easier settings, these things help the flow, even when you want to implement robots.
That’s why the acquisition was so important for us, having co-developed products like CADMAN-SIM with KUKA BeNeLux In the future, we’ll bring more products to market that can follow the same principles.
FWM: It seems like you’ve spent some time distinguishing between speed and throughput. You can have a very fast machine, but unless you can continue the flow to the downstream processes, all you’ve done is created or moved a bottleneck.
MF: Exactly. We’ve done so many presentations on things like, what is Industry 4.0? What does it mean? How does it add value to your business? All the talk now is about smart factories. What is a smart factory? Is it only for big companies or is it for small companies? Truly it’s about flow and throughput.
I have a colleague who gives presentations on our CADMAN software solutions and says you need to take a snapshot of production of a series of components. When you look at the process, you have a processing time, for example, of 10 percent of the overall time scale. And there is 90 percent which is not related to machine speed. He asks, what are you going to do? Will you impact 10 percent of the 10 percent, or 10 percent of the 90 percent? It is clear what will make the biggest impact on throughput.
FWM: Yes, I think you’re seeing a lot of automation between processing steps now, rather than in the processing itself. Machines get faster, there’s no stopping that trend. However, automating steps between machine processing seems to be where a lot of companies are investing.
MF: Yes, and it’s about finding ways of increasing the flow, all in the same direction. Some things can run at the same time as another process. Some of them have to wait for a process to finish, start, etc. Typically buffering is something that people are trying to get away from because obviously buffering creates other problems.
One of the things we’ve done with the latest edition of the software is to enable you to bring in what we call foreign operations. We have a module called CADMAN-JOB that is all about enabling you to plan the jobs, schedule jobs, and track in real time what’s happening to the jobs. You can look at the work, the loading on the machines, and plan for fast throughput. All of these things fit into the equation of trying to make the product as cost effectively as possible. Everyone’s trying to make smaller batches in shorter lead times. As you said, it’s all about throughput.
FWM: Another topic from this acquisition is that it brings more than just sheet metal expertise and markets. Can you say more about that?
MF: The division of Kuka that we acquired is a solutions business. They have solutions for people that are doing, for example, packaging and logistics, part picking, production line picking, automotive, etc. There is a very wide mix of industrial applications.
FWM: Interestingly, probably 80 percent of what you mentioned are things that your current clients have, like shipping and packing.
MF: A lot of our customers are what people in the States call job shops. They might not have packaging line solutions but they may well have other robotized needs. Our intention is through our newly named LVD Robotic Solutions, to bring solutions to opportunities identified in the LVD network, where we can provide a cost-effective solution for them.
FWM: It’s a great move. The number one problem in fabricating is finding people. And when people say they can’t find people, what they really mean is we have all this work to do and no person or no thing to do it. Suddenly, here comes a viable solution. You’re selling intelligence around the flow, but also the intelligence to get the flow right in the first place.
MF: Yes, but obviously from a manufacturing perspective, it’s currently about bending solutions. One of the things we will bring to market—and we can’t say too much about it now—is a lean cell. It will be a sort of material-in-parts-out situation. We already are looking at opportunities that enable us to go beyond bending, but also parallel to it. If you take the knowledge that both companies had before the acquisition, you start to see solutions for packaging, other parts of operations, and for eliminating robot teaching.
The other thing to look at is what we call standardized robotized solutions. One of the things that has affected people putting robotized solutions into the marketplace is the price point. Sometimes people can get carried away with automating everything. But it’s a classic cost-benefit equation. In planning something, you need to look at what it is that you want to automate, and why. What gains do you want? Then, look at the price point to the solution, which is why a standardized solution is attractive. If you want to put something together, it’s rather like spec’ing a car when you suddenly realize that half of the overall cost of the car has become all the options you just added to it.
FWM: That’s the truth!
MF: It’s about getting the balance right. We think the standardized solutions also enable people to make automation more affordable for people to be able to say, yes, I have a need for that solution. I was struggling to justify it because maybe I was trying to over-automate. I can have a solution that can do 80 to 85 percent of what I need, and it’s not the cost I thought it would be.
FWM: There’s a great parallel in computing. In the 1970s and ‘80s many companies didn’t have the money to put up an IBM mainframe. Here comes the PC and later, local area networks. And it was even better than the monolithic old world. It seems like you may be going in that direction.
MF: Yes, what we have learned is to try and keep most of that standardization and affordability, ease of use, and programming at the forefront of what we do.
FWM: I know our time is limited, but I have one more question for you. What kind of growth do you expect from this newly acquired venture?
MF: That’s a good question, but it’s not something that I can declare to you—we’re a privately owned company. But obviously, we have a strategic roadmap for automation, it’s part of our overall plan. You’ll see us in the market bringing new solutions, and you’ll see LVD Robotic Solutions starting to make more impact as time goes on.