The Cobots are Coming
During the FORUM COBOTY 2018 in Wrocław, Poland, organized by Encon-Koester, I had the opportunity to meet with Enrico Krog Iversen, the CEO of OnRobot, a four month old Danish company that provides innovative Plug & Produce End-of-Arm Tooling that helps manufacturers take full advantage of the benefits of collaborative robots. The company has been making waves ever since it was formed by Universal Robots ex-managers four months ago.
OnRobot A/S was established in June 2018 as result of the merger of three innovative End-of-Arm Tooling companies to facilitate the ongoing growth of collaborative robotics: U.S.-based Perception Robotics (established in 2012), Hungary-based OptoForce (est 2012), and Denmark-based On Robot (est 2015), from which derives the name OnRobot A/S. Iversen hopes this strong alliance will drive innovation and ease-of-use for robotic End-of-Arm Tooling.
Consolidation of the sector seems to be popular: After buying Universal Robots in 2015 for 325M USD, Teradyne recently announced the acquisition of another Danish robotics company, MiR (Mobile Industrial Robots) for an eye-popping 148M USD, an astronomical sum considering the company was formed in 2013 and had only $12M in revenue last year. That said, the company is growing fast: the 12M USD sum is three times larger than the revenue from 2016.
So with all of this activity and growth in this emerging industrial automation sector, why are manufacturers rushing to purchase these collaborative robots, or ?Cobots?, and what does the future hold for their continued success? These are some of the questions that I asked Enrico Krog Iverson during his visit to Poland, one of the over 80 countries where OnRobot is already selling its products.
MM: I am interested in why a company like Teradyne, who has no previous products in automation or robotics, would spend so much money for a relatively young company like Universal Robots, especially given the immense competition from larger, established players on the market.
EKI: They were involved in the production of electronics previously which is a relatively flat market. They asked themselves where can you get 50% or more growth in the industrial sector. There are very few companies in the industrial or automation space where a company could experience that sort of growth. They were interested in a growing sector and their investment has paid off, given that they are still growing and are now the leading Cobotics company in the world.
MM: How did you get started with Universal Robots?
EKI: Universal Robots was founded in 2005 by three engineers and back then they were out of money, not even answering the phone since they were turned off. Then the Danish Growth Fund, which is a government-backed venture capital fund in Denmark, invested in the company and asked me if I would be interested in running the company as CEO. I said OK that?s fine, the product is fine, but I did not like the strategy. I then spent the next three months revising the business plan and I personally invested my own money into the company.
MM: So after UR was sold, did you decide to start OnRobot with the founders of UR, or was that just you as the first investor?
EKI: The original OnRobot was founded in 2015 by one of the previous UR engineers who previously worked for me at UR. I invested in his company with one of the previous UR owners, and I also invested in two other companies: Perception Robotics (USA) and Optoforce (Hungary). Then I realized that sales representatives for all three companies were driving out to the same customers. There were just so many synergies between the companies? products that it made a lot more sense to combine all three companies into one company, which is how OnRobot takes its current form since June of 2018.
MM: Now that you have consolidated your three acquisitions into one company, what is the overall strategy for OnRobot going forward from here?
EKI: The overall strategy and goal of OnRobot is to facilitate the transition from collaborative robots to collaborative applications. The robots themselves will soon become commodities and we are starting to see that already as more competitors come on to the market. So basically if you really want to add value, what is important is how you deploy the robots, what you put on the robots, and what you put around the robots.
To put it simply, if the robot is your arm the strategy of one robot is to be your hand, your eyes, your ears, your sensing capability, whatever makes your arm do anything. Your arm itself does not do much. We are looking at not just hardware in the form of cobots, but also the software that manages these machines.
MM: Do you see the application development via software, or the robots (hardware) being more important as an R&D investment going forward?
EKI: Software is the largest R&D division at OnRobot and I think that it will continue. Not only for the physical grippers and sensors and so on, but also for the purpose of developing a uniform user interface. OnRobot is not only developing products for UR, but also for all other robot brands. I would like that when a robot picks up a gripper, that the user will have the same experience with one robot as with all other robots that use our software and hardware. It is similar to the PC model: you care much less about the hardware brand than you do about whether not its running Windows. As long as it?s running Windows you are happy with it. And this is the direction that I would like to go within the automation industry.
MM: How simple does the operating system have to be? Some Cobots today can be programmed by simply moving the robot in the motion that you want it to move.
EKI: If you want robots to be ubiquitous, the programming of the robots needs to be simple. You really have to make sure that the programming can be done by people that have no engineering background. In some countries the level of technology is quite high, and in other countries it is quite low. Our job is to make it easy to use the robots, particularly in programming the robots.
MM: How many types of robots does OnRobot supply right now?
EKI: Five is probably the right answer but I also could say 100. Five because we have dedicated programming interfaces to five brands, but via normal I/O communication we could basically work with any robot, but then you would not have all of the benefits that you would have with the five brands that we currently work with.
MM: So you are steering your sales reps to these five brands?
EKI: Actually I am steering my R&D department to create interfaces for the other 95 brands on the market. We want to be ?robot independent?.
MM: The grippers and other accessories you sell are targeted towards a class of robots that are relatively inexpensive compared to some of larger industrial robot players on the market. Does that mean that your target customers are small and medium-sized enterprises (SME?s)?
EKI: The main focus is the SME?s. For the SME?s it is the time that the funds invested get returned to them. If the payback period of the investment is shorter than the warranty time of the product, then they know that this is a low-risk investment. The issue for us is how fast we can get the product to market. The decision time for an SME is much shorter than for a larger company.
MM: Are Cobots going to replace people in the workplace?
EKI: Sometimes they do, but sometimes people are hired to work with the Cobots. One of the main advantages of cobots is their flexibility with regards to marginal orders. For example, if you need four more hours of work, a Cobot can do this with no extra cost, as opposed to a human that must be hired full time in many cases to accommodate the only marginal additional hours.
MM: There are close to 250 people at this event today. How do you explain such a high turnout?
EKI: First of all I think that the products that are on display are quite interesting. That said, the general interest in automation is growing quite a bit. There is a general trend in events like this in general as incomes grow.
MM: Do you see this market (Poland) as a potential market, or are you already experiencing sales here?
EKI: We have made sales here already today! We expect to see the region grow along the trendlines of the global growth of our products, which is in our case 50x larger than we are today within the next five years. It?s a good industry to be in.
MM: So is the main problem dealing with high growth issues like personnel and management while trying to meet high demand?
EKI: The same is true in any company: if you don?t focus on building the right organization and putting the right motivational structures in place, it doesn?t matter how good your products are, nothing will come out of it. In our case, the demand is there, the products are good, so the challenge for us is rather bringing together three diverse companies with different cultures and understandings of language. For example, if I say ?sense of urgency?, it does not mean the same thing in LA as it does in Budapest.
MM: Do you see some of the larger players adopting some of the collaborative technologies of OnRobot?
EKI: I do. Some of the larger robotics companies are moving into the collaborative space. We will see more and more of that. We will see technologies emerge that will allow larger robots to be deployed in collaborative applications. Not necessarily the largest robots, but anything up to around 20Kton payloads will be able to collaborate closely with humans in the relatively near future.
MM: Do larger players with more capital represent a threat to your business?
EKI: Capital is not the only determinant of success. You also need to have the right mindset in the people, and that is much more difficult than obtaining capital. The threat to young companies that are working on producing collaborative robots does not come so much from the larger players, but rather from the other young companies that are also quite innovative. That is one of the reasons that OnRobot has moved away from the robot market into a position where we are basically friends with everybody.
MM: Is the industrial sector the most important sector OnRobot going forward?EKI: Yes, the industrial sector is by far the most important sector for us. Of course there are many applications for our products, however, if you want to stay successful you need to stay focused.
MM: Do you plan to visit Poland again soon?
EKI: We are working now in close to 100 countries via our partners (we do not do direct sales) and I am traveling close to 250 days per year. As I much as I like this country, I am not able to visit as much as I would like.
MM: Thank you for visiting Poland and good luck with your future growth.
EKI: Thank you.