Market for Autonomous Mobile Robots Expanding at Record Pace

Interview with Thomas Visti Jensen, the CEO of Mobile Industrial Robots ApS

MIR - Thomas Visti

The 3rdedition of the Forum Cobotyki in Wrocław, Poland welcomed over 300 participants and a special visit by Thomas Visti Jensen, the CEO of Mobile Industrial Robots ApS, the latest industrial robotics company from Denmark to change the way companies are using robotics automation to revolutionize their manufacturing and logistics operations. Mr. Jensen discusses his experience in managing one of the most dynamic robotics companies in the world today as the CEO of Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR).

The opening presentation by Thomas Visti at the Forum Cobotyki 2019 in Wrocław, Poland

Some background about MiR
MiR has grown quickly since its founding in 2013, with sales rising by 500% from 2015 to 2016, and 300% from 2016 to 2017. MiR has quickly established a global distribution network in more than 40 countries, with regional offices in New York, San Diego, Singapore, Frankfurt, Barcelona and Shanghai. Founded and run by experienced Danish robotics industry professionals, MiR is headquartered in Odense, Denmark, and was recently acquired by American company Teradyne for $148M in cash and another $124M by 2020 if certain sales goals are met.  In 2015, Teradyne also acquired the Danish company Universal Robots. Due to its growth over the last several years, MiR was awarded EY Entrepreneur of The Year in Denmark in 2018.

MiR’s dynamic growth has propelled it to one of the world’s leading suppliers of Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR’s) in the industrial and logistics sectors. However the overall market for broadly defined AMR’s in all sectors (aerial, ground and marine commercial and private) is booming, with the overall market expected to grow at 24% per year from $19B in 2018 to $54B by 2023, according to MarketsandMarkets Research.

Source: MarketsandMarkets

One of the reasons that MiR is growing so quickly is due to the fact that MiR was one of the first companies to enter the market for industrial AMRs and was instrumental in creating the market when it was in its infancy. Companies like KUKA and Omron have entered the market for AMR’s, as have many local players and startups, but given the overall size of the market, there is room for many players to do well. The competition will have to move fast however to keep up with MiR. In January of this year MiR landed a key contract with one of the world’s largest and most automated automotive supply companies, Faurecia. With over 290 factories and facilities and over 109,000 employees around the world, the contract with this global leader, along with the acquisition of other key customers in the industrial and logistics space, has propelled MiR to a leadership position worldwide.

Faurecia partnered with MiR to rethink the internal logistics in Faurecia’s production sites globally and make their logistics processes more efficient via flexible, autonomous mobile robots. “We have entered into this strategic partnership with MiR because it has the capacity and extensive knowledge to support us in streamlining and optimizing our logistics operations,” said Eric Moreau, VP Supply Chain & Digital Enterprise, Faurecia Clean Mobility Business Group. “MiR already has a proven technology, and many of the worlds’ largest multinational companies are using its robots to increase logistics efficiency. We generally have a high level of automation, but material handling has until now been a challenge, and we see a huge potential in automating logistics.”

Demonstration of a MiR 500kg capacity AMR at Forum Cobotyki 2019

During the interview with Mr. Jensen, issues related to growth, strategy, technology, and the market for AMR in the various sectors and regions that MiR operates are addressed.

Michael Majchrzak: How did you land the role of CEO at MiR? Was it something that happened unexpectedly or was it planned?

Thomas Visti Jensen: No, it wasn’t my plan at all.  I was employed as the VP and CTO of Universal Robots (UR) from 2009 to 2014, and I was lucky to own some shares of UR as I invested very early. We sold 37 robots in 2009, and today I think UR is selling 1500 robots a month or more, so that was a fantastic journey for me. I had the opportunity to go from being the CTO of UR to the CEO of a new company and that was a very exciting opportunity for me. I started with UR and I learned a lot from being a part of UR from the very beginning. For example, deciding how we should sell our products at all was one of the things that we talked about. Should we sell them directly to customers or via distributors? Are they so easy to use that we can just sell them over the internet? As we were building the whole UR strategy in the early days in 2009, we started out delivering robots from the trunks of our cars and selling to customers in Denmark first, and then taking the robots to Germany for the first time outside of Denmark. After that the company just started opening offices all over the world and quickly became a large company. So for me, leading MiR was sort of a natural transition given my experience from the start at UR, and I actually think that it was planned for me to run MiR when the company was founded in 2013.

MM: MiR was one of the first companies to launch AMR’s for industry and logistics. Did you do any market research before deciding to take the leap?

TVJ: Yes. When Niels (Niels Jul Jacobsen, founder of MiR), reached out to me to be the CEO, he asked me if I was ready for another journey. I started looking into the product and calling some of my contacts in Germany and in the USA and so on, and I spoke with them about the product and nobody really understood the concept. They would ask “where’s the market?” or “we don’t see any potential there”, or whatever. I had the same feeling but I could see some potential in the flexibility that was inherent in the product and the fact that it was very easy to program, it was safe, and I knew that there were companies that were looking for a solution to automate their logistics operations. I realized that logistics was the only part of the production process that wasn’t automated…, yet. So, I took the risk.

MM: So with this growth and opportunity, you must’ve needed a lot of capital for this highly capital-intensive business.

TVJ: We did need a lot of capital to finance our growth. We did not have a lot of capital at the time, but we did have a very good relationship with UR and its founder Esben Ostergaard who is a good friend of mine. He was happy working with Teradyne, the current owner of UR, and we spoke the UR CEO (Jurgen von Hollen, CEO of Universal Robots) and he was also happy with the relationship with Teradyne. Important for us was the knowledge that they allowed the management and much the key personnel stay in Denmark. They also worked with the Danish management, and they were willing to keep investing in Denmark, which also was important for us.

MM: So Teradyne made this very large investment in your company to fuel the growth of the business and now you are dealing with a merger with Universal Robots via Teradyne, a takeover of your company, you are growing in triple digits, and just hired or plan to hire 120 new employees this year. This all must be very challenging for you as the CEO. What are some of the biggest problems that you are experiencing right now in terms of management?

TVJ: It is very exciting to manage such a high growth business, but it is also a challenge from an organizational point of view. People’s positions are new and always changing. New employees that we hired two years ago are doing things now that they were not doing when they were hired. This year we celebrated the first employee that has five years in the company. We are all helping each other, and we are highly focused on sales goals, organizational structure and maintaining our position as the market leader.

MM: What about finding engineering talent, is that difficult in today’s quickly automating environment?

TVJ: Everybody’s asking, ‘is it difficult to find employees?’ It’s not that difficult thankfully, because there’s so much focus on engineering development in Denmark, and we now see a lot of foreigners that are willing to move to Odense (Odense, Denmark is the HQ of MiR) because there’s a lot of exciting jobs there. So the cluster of robotics companies (Universal Robots is also located in Odense) and of course the success stories of UR and MiR motivates foreigners to move to Odense, and especially young people that are willing to move for exciting jobs. I’m not saying it’s been easy, but it’s been relatively easy for us to find the good employees compared to the whole market situation as it is right now. If you look at Boston for example (Teradyne is headquartered in Boston), you have to pay probably double the salaries that you pay in Denmark for good engineers, and it’s not easy to find skilled robotics people there.

MM: Looking at the development of the company and the market, AMRs are expanding very rapidly across many sectors, both private and commercial. What are the sectors that you are focusing on and where do see the biggest potential for your products?

TVJ: The main driver in the beginning was automotive producers and suppliers, as they were willing to invest in the technology. They were also the first sector to move into automation. After automotive came electronics and then we saw Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) and now logistics. So this has been the development of the market. And of course, hospitals. Hospitals have a big potential in the long distances that are required moving medical equipment around buildings. Our medical equipment robots are programmed to take the elevators themselves and are moving from room to room. So that’s a technology that we have been developing together with the market and trying to understand that market better during the journey. Automotive is still 35% of our revenue today. Since the company has only a relatively short history, it really depends on where we started and we started in the automotive sector and we have a longer history there, more projects ongoing, more implementations. Now we can see that logistics is moving very fast, so we have been focusing on logistics over the last two years.

We are also focusing more into verticals now, but more important for our strategy is that we try to keep our products very simple. So one of the successes of UR and MiR is that we have very few products in our portfolio and we are very good at those products, as opposed to being mediocre at a lot of products. When we have perfected a good product and the platform to go with it, we immediately expand it globally. MiR has been thinking globally from the very beginning. Having a big market with relatively few products and then being experts in those products, and then introducing those products on a global scale is a simple but effective strategy.

MM: So how many products do you have?

TVJ:  We have four main product platforms:  100kg payload, 200kg payload (half sized pallets) and we have introduced a 500 kilo payload robot last year, which is a full size pallet. We also now have a 1000 ton payload robot. Those are our four main products that we have from a hardware point of view. We also have our fleet management systems that are able to control our robots. This is a very important aspect of our offer since we have customers that for example have 40 robots in one facility, and they can connect to the EIP (MiR’s software robotics management platform) system and they can control the robots remotely. For example, if there is a job that needs to pick up a part, the system will manage the robots for particular jobs. It works kind of like a taxi control center, where jobs are given to available AMR’s based on their location, energy levels, etc. Most of our companies are larger multi-national companies, so we need a rigorous and secure management systems for managing fleets of robots.

MM: Which regional markets are the most important for you right now and how strategic are the markets in this region of Central and Eastern Europe?

TVJ: If you look at robotics overall China a very large market for all manufacturers. Over one third of all robots produced go to China. In our case right now about 10-12% of our sales go to China. The USA is our second largest market with more than 25% of our sales there. Finally Europe is our largest market with over 50% of our total revenue. Eastern Europe is around 14% of our total revenue. Poland is the most important country for us in this region, basically because there are many large multinational players here. All of the big players and their suppliers are here in Poland. Even today, Whirlpool has a presentation in the form of a case study from their Polish operations. That is a typical customer for us, and there are a lot of those manufacturers here in Poland. Overall, we expect the market for logistical AMR’s to grow from around 100,000 overall installed base today to over 700,000 until by 2022.

MM: So it looks like the future for MiR looks bright.

TVJ: Indeed, it does. We are all very excited about the opportunity to serve the market and our clients.

MM: Thank you for your time.

TVJ: Thank you.

More information about Thomas Visti Jensen:
Thomas Visti Jensen is a key person in the commercial success of Mobile Industrial Robots, a global leading manufacturer of collaborative mobile robots, and his involvement in the booming robot industry has contributed to creating a large number of jobs in his hometown of Odense, Denmark.

Thomas Visti Jensen joined Mobile Industrial Robots in 2014 as the CEO and as an investor. Since then Mobile Industrial Robots has grown at an incredible speed; in 2015 the turnover was 5 million DKK and in 2018 it had grown to 200 million DKK. Mobile Industrial Robots was sold to American Teradyne in 2018 for 1.7 billion DKK.

From 2009 to 2014 Thomas Visti Jensen was part of building up the successful robot company, Universal Robots. He started out as the Sales Director and in 2012 he became the CCO/Vice President with responsibility for developing and executing global Sales and Marketing, and also managing Area Sales Managers, Technical support and Internal Sales.

During this period Universal Robots grew from a 3 million DKK turnover company in 2009 to a 100+ million DKK company with subsidiaries in Shanghai and New York. Universal Robots was sold to Teradyne in 2015 for 1.9 billion DKK.

Previously he worked for seven years as Sales Manager at Sauer-Danfoss primarily focusing on international sales.

He was born in 1974. He has trained as an electrician and graduated as a Bachelor of Engineering (B.E.) in 2001 from The University of Southern Denmark.