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Q&A: Future Of Industrial Robotics

Esben Østergaard, co-founder and chief technology officer of Universal Robots, discusses receiving the Engelberger Robotics Award and the future of industrial robotics.

Last year I had the opportunity to meet with Esben Østergaard, co-founder and chief technology officer of Universal Robots, at the second annual Robotiq User Conference (RUC) in Quebec City, Canada.  We discussed how collaborative robots were being used in industrial settings and how safety standards must evolve to include cobots. 

This year Østergaard was honored with the Engelberger Robotics Award, which is presented to individuals for excellence in technology development, application, education, and leadership in the robotics industry. Recently, I had the opportunity to communicate with Østergaard for a more in-depth discussion on the future of industrial robotics and his thoughts on receiving the award. 

IMPO: When Universal Robots was started in 2005, what did you envision the 2018 robotics environment would be like? How does reality compare?

Esben Østergaard: When we started UR we were really ambitious as we basically wanted to change the world. We did expect a disruption within the industry but at the time we didn’t expect to see so many new and creative ways our cobots are being used, i.e. in movies, for massages, as a camera man, flying planes etc. 

IMPO: You were recently honored with the Engelberger Robotics Award, what are some of your thoughts on receiving that award?

Østergaard: Of course it’s great and a lifetime achievement. Somehow, I think I’m too young for this. But I promise to do more. I’m not done yet. Mostly I’m proud of being a part of changing industrial robots from being these big machines sitting behind fences doing the same thing over and over again to becoming flexible tools that any worker with no robotics experience can pick up and safely use in a collaborative fashion.

IMPO: What are some of the challenges of bringing collaborative robots into the manufacturing space?

Østergaard: The barriers we face are mostly educational – as many potential customers still regard robotics as heavy, expensive and very complex to program. But as the CEO of Task Force Tips – a firehose valve manufacturer in Indiana – said recently: The UR cobots represent a fundamental paradigm shift in the way robots are viewed. Having customers embrace this paradigm shift, realizing and understanding that industrial robots can indeed operate safely and flexibly in tandem with people outside safety cages while delivering a fast ROI is our most significant task at hand.

IMPO: In what ways does utilizing co-bots improve worker safety?

Østergaard: With traditional robots, it’s impossible to work with them side-by-side without some serious safety concerns. Given their built-in safety functions, cobots and individuals can work in tandem without needing cages (subject to risk assessment). Universal Robots’ new e-Series cobot line has 17 safety functions certified by TÜV Nord and is in compliance with EN ISO 13849-1 and EN ISO 10218-1 machinery safety standards for unobstructed human-robot collaboration. Not only are the cobots safe to work with, they also free up humans from the ergonomically unfavorable tasks. As an operations manager at Scott Fetzer Electrical Group in Tennessee put it when he deployed a UR cobot to cut 16,000 wires daily — a job that was handled manually before — “let the robot get carpal tunnel!”

IMPO: What is a common misconception the manufacturing industry has about collaborative robots?

Østergaard: There are a few! Let me mention some of the most common cobot myths that we debunk:
When most people think of robots, the image of a large, lumbering box used on assembly lines often comes to mind. But the reality is, with the flexibility of cobots, companies can automate even the simplest of tasks. Unlike fixed automation you can move cobots around from task to task, automating the high mix low volume production flows that fixed, traditional automation will never be able to address. There is definitely still a need for high speed, caged robots, dedicated to one task only, we’re not competing against those, we’re basically creating a whole new market for automation.

We also often hear that cobots are too “fragile” and not of an industrial grade to handle dirty, dusty jobs or work in hazardous environments. Nothing is further from the truth, our cobots can handle plasma spray, powder coatings, spray painting and operate in environments up to 122 degrees. In our UR+ showroom of certified plug & play products for the UR cobots you can find sleeves for the robots and teach pendant protectors for these types of environments.

And of course, there’s this notion that robots steal jobs. Quite the opposite is true. Robots actually relieve workers from strenuous and repetitive tasks so that they can take on better, more exciting roles within the company. And, with the robots helping to increase productivity, companies often find themselves in a position to hire more people, thus creating jobs, not eliminating them. We see that happen all the time actually. We recently saw this at Trelleborg Sealing Solutions in Denmark where the arrival of 42 UR cobots increased the competitiveness, enabling the company to hire 50 more employees. Generally speaking, only 10 percent of jobs are fully automatable, and with cobots the production rises 50 percent — without job losses. From 2017-2020, robots will create upwards of 2 million jobs globally, but no machine will ever replace human dexterity, critical thinking, decision-making and creativity.

IMPO: What do you see as the future of robotics in the manufacturing industry?

Østergaard: We need to see the robot as a colleague that works right next to us in close collaboration, not simply as a machine that takes over manual labor and gets people fired. Employees with no prior programming experience are now promoted from operators to robot programmers as the robot takes over the “3D jobs” — the Dull, Dangerous and Dirty. The result is an improved work environment where humans are freed up to focus on more rewarding tasks — both financially and mentally. Putting knowledge back to the factory floor will perhaps be the best long-term result derived from leveraging collaborative robots. The industrial revolutions created enormous wealth, but at the same time it has removed passion and knowledge about the product from production itself. If we can close that gap again — if we can somehow mix people and machines in the right way on the factory floor, we see enormous potential there for value adding, rather than just cranking up production levels. It’s qualitative change. We call it Industry 5.0.

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