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'Robots and humans will work together'

April 27, 2017

So-called collaborating robots are a focus this year at Hanover Messe. One of the leading manufacturers exhibiting these industry solutions at the fair is Danish company Universal Robots.

Werker in einer Fabrik in Kanada arbeiten gemeinsam mit einem Roboter
Image: Universal Robots

Robots are clearly the main focus at Hanover Messe, the world's largest industrial fair.

So-called collaborating robots - those working closely with humans - are especially in the spotlight this year. One of the leading manufacturers of these industry solutions is Universal Robots from Denmark. The firm, headquartered in Odense, Denmark, develops flexible and cost-efficient industrial robots, which are equipped and complemented by numerous partner companies with special terminal devices including gripper arms.

DW's Henrik Böhme spoke to Universal Robots president Jürgen von Hollen about how a company with 350 employees can hold its ground in the global and highly competitive automation technology market.

DW: Mr. von Hollen, Hannover Messe abounds with robots. Your exhibits stand around freely. Three or four years ago, robots had to hide behind fences - otherwise they wouldn't have been allowed to go to work. How quickly are robots evolving, and where does this development take us?

Jürgen von Hollen: The market is not only very dynamic right now, we're also seeing it change rapidly as it is trying to get to the next level of automation in various production processes. This development is a golden opportunity. The robotics market is growing unchanged by 10 to 15 percent globally year on year, and the niche area of collaborating robots is even growing a whopping 70 percent.  We expect this growth to continue at this pace over the next three to five years.

Jürgen von Holle, CEO Universal Robots
Jürgen von Hollen has been president of Universal Robots since last fall.Image: Universal Robots

The fair has focused on the collaboration between man and robot. That must sound like good news for a company like yours, which has been dealing with this topic for quite some time?

Yes, that's a good match. But what's important for us to emphasize is that we use robots as tools. We believe that people have their strengths, and so do robots. If you combine the two sides, one plus one doesn't equal two, bur rather three. The robot as a tool and collaborating with people - what you get is a completely new working environment.

A brief look around tells me you've got many competitors. What do you need to do to catch clients' attention, make better products and be able to sell them?

In our segment, we have a market share of well over 50 percent. Having been the first in the market, we've enjoyed the "first mover advantage." But we do realize that competition in 2017 has grown substantially. For us, it's important to have a robust product. We will not build everything on our own, we're looking for dynamic solutions. This is to say that we have many options with our "Universal Robots Plus" platform. We have a "shared business" model in a bid to create a whole ecosystem. More than 200 partners have responded to our offer and rely on our technology platform to keep their customers satisfied.

Are we then talking about a kind of playstore for your robots where those interested can develop the required accessories? Is it an open-source model?

That's really something new in the B2B sector. Just consider how much is currently being invested in Industry 4.0, automation and robotics; it's really a lot. And we at Universal Robots will keep a strong focus on our technology platform. Again, we're not going to try to everything by ourselves. On the contrary, we are seeking a platform, which is as open as possible, because then will we stand a chance to use global innovation for our products. This is what makes our business model different from others.

Your robots are also capable of making fairly simple things, like putting things into boxes or getting them out of boxes, that is thinks that ordinary workers used to do. What are those workers supposed to do now instead?

We believe our opportunities are terrific. And that's our vision. We want to make automation and robotics accessible to all. People will be there control the making of the product, a kind of DIY [Do it Yourself] strategy, providing a level playing field for both large and smaller companies. Human beings will be "operators" in this process, the ones responsible for what's being done and produced. Employees know best how to do this.

So, we're not talking about job killers?

Not at all.

South-African born Jürgen von Hollen has been president of Universal Robots since last fall. The company is headquartered in Odense, Denmark and employs some 350 people. It was founded in 2005 by Esben Ostergaard.

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