The vision for cobots—robots working collaboratively with humans—is to empower people by making automation safe for all, fast to set up, flexible to deploy and easy to program, said Universal Robots (UR) President Jurgen von Hollen in his opening remakrs at the company’s virtual event, Cobot Expo, in July (Figure 1).
The UR business model has created a unique ecosystem of partners. The open platform is a fundamental part of the company’s strategy and essential to its quick growth from the launch of its first cobot in 2008 to the acquisition by Teradyne in 2015. The UR+ platform has more than 400 partner companies offering more than 250 components and application kits. “We’re moving from being a pure product company to much more of an applications or solutions company, leveraging the Universal Robots Plus ecosystem,” von Hollen said (Figure 2).
Figure 2: The UR business model has created a unique ecosystem of partners.
“We see the technology as an enabler,” he said. “We believe passionately that robot automation, specifically collaborative automation, should be made accessible to all types of companies, not just the large, but also the small and medium.”
Whereas industrial robots traditionally have automated large operations with specialized programming and intensive training required, cobot applications can be deployed incrementally or in parts of the manufacturing process. UR cobots require less engineering and programming, as most of that work is already done by the UR+ partners, explained von Hollen (Figure 3).
Figure 3: Cobot applications can be deployed incrementally or in parts of the manufacturing process.
Collaborative robots have introduced some significant changes in the industry that has fueled this growth in DIY, particularly lower price points and the ability to automate portions of the production line. Campbell said it’s also much easier to get training and education for collaborative robots. The UR Academy is an online training service, available at no charge. More than 90,000 users have taken the academy training course, which can be completed in about two hours.
Quick training, along with the flexibility of the UR+ program, has led to rapid-deployment robotics, Campbell said. Companies can have working cobots in four weeks from the purchase order to production time, and UR can ship its cobots anywhere in seven days or less, he said. However, DIY is not appropriate for every company and every project. “There are times when some level of outside integration is definitely required,” Campbell explained.
In deciding between the four types of implementation—DIY, value-add distributor, lean integrator and traditional system integrator—the project scope, cost, risk, complexity and schedule will ultimately determine which type is most appropriate. “For the most part, traditional integrators are big, and they want to be big. Bigger is better in their world,” Campbell said.
Lean integrators, on the other hand, focus on projects with small footprints and low overhead. “Their processes are very nimble, and they are focused on time, and consequently their lead time is measured in weeks, not months,” Campbell said. Lean integrators are also highly specialized in a specific industry and application and rarely work outside those areas.
Value-add distributors are somewhere in between integrators and do-it-yourselfers. UR sells through many distributors, who understand the applications and how to assemble the robots. “Value-add distributors are typically only doing engineering to facilitate sales,” Campbell said. They can make recommendations about what automation products will fit a certain project, but they are not heavy in engineering processes and rely on their suppliers for training and support, he explained.
While easy to define the different categories, “the reality is there is a significant amount of overlap,” explained Campbell. “There are, for example, some distributors who have evolved into lean integrators. In some cases, lean integrators are starting to look at jobs that a traditional integrator would do, and we see traditional integrators who are working hard to solve the formula to allow them to compete down in the smaller project scope.”
Collaborative robots are used in every application segment that traditional automation occupies, such as welding, lab analysis, machine tending, assembly, pick and place, quality inspection, gluing and dispensing, injection molding, screw driving, and palletizing and depalletizing.
The COVID-19 crisis is also presenting challenges that could be met successfully with cobots. They can fit into very limited space requirements; they can be incrementally implemented; and they can help to distance workers and replace the lost production. “You can get social distancing on your manufacturing floor without having to move any of your current machines,” Campbell said.
As the pandemic unfolded, DCL Logistics, a multi-channel logistics company with fulfillment centers in Louisville, Kentucky, Los Angeles and Silicon Valley, saw a 30% increase in its business in 60 days. As Amazon prioritized essential products, those vendors needed help in meeting demand and turned to DCL for direct-to-consumer fulfillment. In normal times, DCL would hire temp workers to manage spikes in demand, but the company wanted to keep workers safe and didn’t want to bring in more employees. Instead, DCL deployed a UR10 cobot in order fulfillment, and productivity increased by 500%. “The cobot production can handle in two hours what their normal team of five can do in an entire day,” Campbell said. He said the ROI for the cobot was three months, and it reduced labor costs by 50%. DCL was able to meet its increased demand and was one of the only fulfillment centers that did not have to change service level agreements (SLAs) with its customers.
The cobot market will continue to grow independently of the pandemic, but COVID-19 has presented additional opportunities for automation to step in. Campbell said the crisis has also influenced many companies to rethink production logistics. “Companies are making significant investment to reshore all or part of production,” Campbell said. “We’re also seeing companies invest in flexibility.” Production runs may be getting shorter or changing with more uncertainty, or the product mix may be changing, and the flexibility and easy deployment of cobots can help manage those fluctuations, he explained.
Cobots are ideal for low-volume production with high product mix. “It’s because they’re so easy to deploy,” Campbell said. Unlike traditional robots, cobot applications can be quickly moved around and reprogrammed, depending on the production mix.
Although revenues were down significantly for the first quarter, compared to last year, von Hollen remains optimistic about UR’s third and fourth quarters of 2020, and the company still projects significant growth in the next few years.