The name of Blue Workforce A/S is all about machines, according to serial entrepreneur Preben HjOrnet. Not warm hands to do the job, but cold hands. Robots should do the difficult and dull jobs, leaving humans to do the exciting and interesting work, he said. HjOrnet cited Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen’s theory of “disruptive innovation” as a major inspiration for Blue Workforce’s products.
In 1995, Christensen defined a disruptive innovation as “a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves upmarket, eventually displacing established competitors.”
“One of our products is the unique product-handling robot Ragnar, which was methodically developed for the industry by using disruptive innovation,” HjOrnet said. “With regard to price, Ragnar is four to 10 times cheaper than other solutions.”
“Ragnar is lighter, more flexible, and has a one-minute changeover time,” HjOrnet told Robotics Business Review. “It [includes] open control software, optimized by factors in cost, footprint, and workspace.”
“It cannot be compared to any other product at the market,” he explained. “The customers choose our solution despite the fact that we nearly have no history. They see that it is the best solution to meet their demands.”
Inspired to innovate
In 1997, Christensen’s book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, examined “why new technologies cause great firms to fail.”
“A disruptive innovation is not a breakthrough innovation that makes good products a lot better,” Christensen wrote. “It has a very specific definition. It transforms a product that historically was so expensive and complicated that only a few people with a lot of money and a lot of skills have access to it. Disruptive innovation makes it so much more affordable and accessible that a much larger population has access to it.”
“The only way to look into the future — there is no data — so you have to have a good theory,” he said. “By teaching managers to look through the lens of a theory in the future, you can actually see the future very clearly. That is what the theory of disruption has done.”
In 2013, The Washington Post ranked Christensen as a “top 50 thinker,” and it also described him as “the world’s most influential management thinker.” In 2014, Christensen gave a seminar in Copenhagen, Denmark.
“Christensen has had a great influence on me,” HjOrnet said. “It has meant that I am in control of the methodology, and in 15 years, he has perfected the models.
Frustration leads to disruptive innovation
HjOrnet has worked with several startups and founded Blue Workforce in 2012. He has an MBA from Harvard Business School and teaches disruptive education as part of the executive MBA and Master of Manufacturing and Technology program at Aalborg University.
In addition, HjOrnet has served as a consultant and worked for Lego A/S as the toymaker made its turnaround in 2002 and 2005.
“My background to found Blue Workforce originated from frustration and wonderment over how expensive and complicated it is to bring robots into the industry,” he said. “It puts a stop to many opportunities to get out where the needs are.”
“The philosophy behind the Ragnar robot is that is must be simple,” HjOrnet said. “The movements of the robot are self-trained, and the system is put up so it is easy for the user to operate. The customers get a full solution with freedom and agile methods.”
Ragnar robot specs
“Select a Ragnar robot industrial frame, and get a portable robot system,” said HjOrnet. “The robot can now be used in several production locations, giving you even greater flexibility. A modular robot system can seem rather complex to combine. We have made that simpler by naming three standards to get started with.”
Ragnar and its frame are lightweight because metal parts have been replaced by plastic, according to Blue Workforce. It can easily move parts from one conveyor to another, and its frame can be mounted on wheels. The robot’s arms can reach out beyond its footprint, and three balls in 20 seconds calibrate Ragnar to within an accuracy of 1 mm.
One Ragnar user is a cosmetics company for which the robot puts caps onto lipstick tubes. Other end users are using custom grippers or other tailor-made solutions.
Blue Workforce’s customers are in industries including waste management, food, logistics, toys, and consumer appliances. The company also serves the educational market and works with partners on innovation.
A basic-model Ragnar robot costs about € 9,000 ($10,000). Accessories such as a gripper, vision system, conveyor, and frame can bring the price to €35,000 ($39,000), but that is one fifth of the price of systems from other companies, said HjOrnet.
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European-born, ‘American heart’
HjOrnet said he had a positive experience at RoboBusiness Europe 2016 in Odense, Denmark.
“I was very excited to see that the labor union Dansk Metal was so extensively present,” he recalled. “The Confederation of Danish Industry understands the value of upgrading the robot industry.”
“I was surprised how easy it was to receive international visitors at my stand. I didn’t expect that,” he said. “There was an increasing international attendance. There were many Americans, and I had several leads. I see RoboBusiness Europe more as a forum than a conference.”
HjOrnet has a devil-may-care attitude and labels himself “the black sheep of the robotics family.” Although he is Danish by birth, he said he has found many like-minded people in the U.S., where his uncompromising attitude to robotics and innovation calls out for “his American heart.”
“We plan to establish ourselves in the U.S., where the momentum is the largest,” HjOrnet said. “I would like to have a center of excellence, which is a blend of FabLab, a tech shop, and a training facility. Here the first-time customers could receive virtual training to be ready to use a robot when it has been delivered.”
Blue Workforce will among the exhibitors at RoboBusiness next week in San Jose, Calif. You can find the company at Booth 512 on Sept. 28 and 29, 2016.