Joanne Pransky, associate editor of Industrial Robot, recently talked with another robotics pioneer — Esben Ostergaard, co-founder and chief technology officer of Universal Robots. She shares her latest interview with us.
Ostergaard has been interested in robotics since childhood and has a Ph.D. in robotics from the University of Southern Denmark. Ostergaard’s team won the Federation of International Robot-Soccer Association’s world championship in 1998, and he later conducted research at the University of Southern California and for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) on multi-robot coordination.
Ostergaard founded Universal Robots with two research colleagues in 2005. The Odense, Denmark-based company makes multi-axis, lightweight industrial robots and has grown to nearly 150 employees and 4,000 installations in 50 countries.
This interview is available free to Robotics Business Review readers until June 30, 2015. Here’s a quick preview:
Pransky: When you were a researcher at different universities in the U.S., Denmark, and Japan, what were the differences, if any, in their approaches to robotics and how they did research? Do you think your exposure to three different countries’ robotics research helped you to come up with Universal Robot?
Ostergaard: A little bit; yes. Seeing the needs and understanding people’s thinking in various countries really helped to obtain a worldwide type of product that we wouldn’t have acquired if we just had been looking at the Danish, who are typical factory workers.
Pransky: What is that thinking, after spending some time in each of these countries?
Ostergaard: In the USA, people can think bigger and get things done faster as compared to Europe, where everything has to conform to standards. In the USA, they’re leading in military and outdoor robots. Europe has had a strength and strong tradition in industrial robots, influenced by the Germans with higher precision, high repeatability, and so on. In Japan, they’ve been looking more at humanoids and robots that interact with people. I think that’s the main difference between these three regions.
Pransky: How do you like your position as CTO and handling the strategic direction versus being the engineer doing the hands-on development?
Ostergaard: I like the strategic focus very much. I’ve always been very interested in philosophy, and that’s part of the reason why I’ve been so interested in robotics. We are really putting a fingerprint on the world with what we’re doing, and that motivates me a lot. We have really changed how a lot of companies think about production, and I would love to be part of the trend that makes it possible to get production back near the consumers, instead of money and empty containers going to China returning back with plastic parts. That’s one of the potentials that this kind of robot technology can actually give.
More on Universal Robots
Pransky: What markets or applications are the 4,000 robots that you’ve sold being used in?
Ostergaard: We see that high-salary [Western] countries adopt this faster than low-salary countries because they really need new technology to be able to continue production or re-shore production. Western countries are sort of desperate and motivated to try something new because the status quo isn’t working for them.
The primary industries we see are the metal, plastic, and parts-handling industries. But it’s pretty wide. We see physiotherapy with our robots. We’ve seen massage, and some for elderly care. One of our robots is being used for showering people. They just sit on a chair inside the shower, and then the robot goes around.
I had never imagined all these applications when we started the company. I guess when people get new technology in their hands, they become creative and they start thinking, “Where can this be used?” We see a lot of that all over the world. But our main business is small machine shops….