Universal Robots CTO Esben Ostergaard on the Future of Collaborative Robots
Isaac Maw posted on July 26, 2018 |

Universal Robot’s CTO and Co-Founder Esben Østergaard recently won the Engelberger Robotics Award for Technology. Named after Joseph F. Engelberger, widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in industrial robotics, the award is often likened to the Nobel Prize in terms of prestige and honor. At 44, Østergaard is the youngest recipient of the award since its inception in 1977.

Universal Robots (UR) is widely regarded as a driving force behind the development of collaborative robots. The company took a role in developing the ISO 10218 safety standard for collaborative robots, and recently appeared on the Robotics Business Review top 50 companies of 2017, along with cobot colleagues Rethink Robotics and Robotiq, among others.

Engineering.com interviewed Østergaard about the award, his ideas about the collaborative robotics industry, and the future of technology.

Engineering.com: Do you see cobots and traditional industrial robots as separate categories, or in competition?

Esben Østergaard: Traditional robots and collaborative robots have relatively little competition. Traditional industrial robots are good at one set of applications, and collaborative robots are good at something else. They have two different target applications. I think we can grow cobots a lot without taking any sales from traditional robots, and vice versa.

Engineering.com: Non-industrial robotics is a growing sector. Does UR have plans for robots outside the factory, such as in the home?

Well, all robots are a growing sector. Generally, technology grows, and so does collaborative robotics. We see our robots used in industry, an in a wide range of other applications too. Hospitals, rehabilitation, massage, restaurants, construction sites, logistics… it’s a pretty wide range of other application areas. However, we think that as robots grow into these application environments adjacent to the factory environment, and separate from it, collaborative robots will be very important.

Traditional robots are very good at doing the exact same thing over and over again, which historically has fit very well into automotive industry. That’s where traditional robots are in their prime.They are very good at welding car bodies together, for example. They have high speed and high power.

We tried to make collaborative robots aimed at high-mix low-volume production and bring more flexibility. That approach has opened up a lot of new application areas outside of industry and in adjacent environments which are not as chaotic as the streets or in homes, but not nearly as regulated as the automotive lines. That’s generally the trend in robotics: moving beyond highly regulated environments to less regulated environments, moving towards everyday life situations outside the factory, on the streets and in people’s homes. Safety is also part of the trend. In these factory environments, you can fence in the environments and control material flow precisely, and the robot knows exactly what’s coming down the line. People are not mixing with the robots at all.

We all imagine a future where robots are driving around in the streets and in our homes, where safety is paramount. We cannot have unsafe robots in our homes and on the streets. These robots that are out of the factory will need to react to sensors and will have to be very flexible to be in our homes.

The future kind of robot may never do the same motion twice, while traditional robots always do the same motion every single time. That’s kind of a trend in flexibility: the number of times the robot is doing the same thing. Very high for automotive lines, and very low for say, supermarket robots, or whatever. In the future, they’ll have to be safe, they’ll have to react to sensors, and they’ll have to be very flexible to get new tasks to do all the time and figure out how to do that task. There’s more intelligence, more safety and more variety in the future of robots.

What we did at Universal Robots is make robots more flexible than the traditional robots. Probably not as flexible as the future—I know that Rosie from the Jetsons is the prototype for how robots should be in the future, but we’re not there yet. The flexibility we have added to our robots has permitted some of these more futuristic tasks. So, we have seen them kind of spreading out of the factory environment, definitely out of the automotive environment, but actually out of more generally small and medium size factories into adjacent areas: hospitals, construction sites, restaurants. So, it is happening.

Engineering.com: Most robotics manufacturersmake a cobot product as well as traditional industrial robots. Is there an advantage to focusing only on collaborative robots?

There is a difference. For the traditional robot manufacturers, a collaborative robot means,most of the time, a robot with a safety system added to it. For us, that is not what makes a robot collaborative. In reality, we also know the applications these robots are aimed at, which is the shared workspace application between a human and a robot, they are not the dominant type of applications we see out there. Our take on what a collaborative robot is it’s this tool for people to do their work. So, it’s easy to program, easy to work around, can easily be retrofitted onto existing lines, doesn’t need fencing, and programmable by the people standing on the factory floor. That’s for us what collaborative is. It’s not just about the safety, it’s about programming, redeployability, lightweight, and so on. That’s what enables all the new applications.

The reason why the traditional robot manufacturers use the word collaborative is because the ISO 10218 standard has a section on collaborative applications. Because it’s a safety standard, it only deals with safety. That’s why it’s easy to think that a robot intended for collaborative applications according to the safety standard is a collaborative robot. But the safety standard doesn’t capture things like redeployability, ease of use, programming, et cetera.

That explains why they call it collaborative, even though I wouldn’t call it collaborative because it isn’t a tool that people can understand and use.

Engineering.com: Why did Universal Robots decide to provide UR Academy for free online?

What we want is to empower people to use robots. In the U.S., there has been a lot of discussion with job disruption. Of course, technology disrupts work—it always has. In general, society gets richer and people get more interesting jobs in the long term, but the guy who has been putting glue in this groove for the last ten years, he gets challenged if a robot starts doing his work for him.

On the other hand, if a company (in the traditional way of thinking) says “let’s replace this guy with a robot,” they are throwing away something super valuable from their value chain. That process he’s doing is probably a key part of the process. If you lose this guy, you lose all that know-how and you lose the ability to make modifications to your product. The system integrator setting up the robot is not an expert in gluing, he’s not an expert in materials, he’s not an expert in how the end product should look. So, you lose something valuable by replacing the guy with the robot. That explains the failure of the traditional ‘salary replacement’ view of bringing in industrial robots.

What we’re trying to do with UR Academy is make this worker into a robot programmer. By giving him or her this tool, by giving the world this tool, we can mitigate some of the effect of technological disruption. We can move people from working like robots to programming robots.

The traditional view is that in the future we will need more experts, high-end people, and we don’t need many low-end people. That doesn’t add up, because society in general doesn’t have enough highly educated experts and there will be too many left over at the bottom. Instead of thinking like that, we try to move the whole chain upward. We try to empower workers on the factory line to become programmers and use all that skill they’ve built up about the processes, the materials and the products they’re producing, core know-how, and to apply it to robot programming, thereby keeping their value in-house.

Of course, that changes the business case for buying the robot, because suddenly you aren’t buying the robot to replace salary, you’re buying it typically for upgrading quality or output flow, for example. This type of investment grows the business. And the result of that is that you’ll need to hire more people. We see this all the time. It’s very important to make sure that these workers are not lost and that they can grow with the business. This approach is the most valuable for the business.

We originally made the UR Academy to train our partners to a certain basic level before they came to the company. But we found out that this basic training in robotics is actually super useful for end customers as well, and now that’s our focus for it. Why do it for free? We want to train as many as possible. We can see that 30,000 people have taken the course so far. You can see that online.

Engineering.com: UR has always offered three robots, the 3kg, 5kg and 10kg payload arms. In the future, will UR have another robot?

Do I think that? I know that! But I shouldn’t really talk about it. But, you know. I can say that we have opened a new market for robots. We see lots of competition out there. A lot is coming. We want to maintain our leadership and we will not stop developing robots. Something will come—but I can’t say what, of course.

Engineering.com: Has your Engelberger award affected the morale or pride of the employees of your company?

That’s a good question. Probably yes, I think it has. But I must say, we have been winning a lot of awards. Just the week before I won this Engelberger award, we won the Frost & Sullivan Manufacturing Excellence award. We actually got five awards in various categories, including for our product, for the UR+ ecosystem, and for our vision and leadership in manufacturing. So, we got a whole host of awards at that event, and over the years.

But I think this Engelberger is something special. Especially for me, personally, because it’s a personal award. But I think it makes our employees prouder to be a part of something.

The award’s inscription reads, “For contributing to the advancement of the science of robotics in the service of mankind.” It’s cool for everybody to be part of that.

The inscription matches what we want to do at Universal Robots. I know job disruption is a big topic, but I’m very convinced that technology will make the world a better place. Not automatically, but if we do it right, it can become a much better world. If you think about it, it always has. That’s how it has always been.

Some romantics want to go back 200 years. But if you tried it for a few days, you’d figure out you have no washing machine, no dishwasher, then you wouldn’t be so keen on that anymore! Today, we live longer, we have lower infant mortality, we don’t need to starve in the winter. Especially as an engineer, I see that the world is becoming a better place over time, thanks to technology.

For more on Universal Robots, check out Cobot Comparison: New UR e-SERIES vs. 3rd Gen UR Robots.


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