June 05, 2016      

Denmark has made itself a key player in European robotics, which many consider essential to the continent’s economic viability, but what is the secret of its success? Can regions, researchers, and companies learn from that and apply it to their circumstances?

Sure, Paris and the Boston area have strong robotics communities, thanks to university spinoffs; Silicon Valley and Beijing have invested billions of dollars in high-tech; and Munich, Detroit, and Pittsburgh are pivoting from robots making cars to robotic self-driving cars.

But they shouldn’t rest on their laurels, as cities and regions worldwide hungrily look for the right mix of local talent, partnerships, and industry niches to get a piece of the still-growing action in robotics across industries.

Robotics Business Review has already covered robotics in Denmark, but I got to see its companies firsthand and talk directly with people in the industry around RoboBusiness Europe 2016.

Vision and persistence

It’s easy to forget or take for granted the fact that the choices of a few individuals helped make Odense the growing hub for European robotics that it is today. Innovation is good, but technology needs human determination to reach fruition.

As Carsten Steno explained in his book, A Cluster of Success: Universal Robots and the Danish Robotics Movement, 1986 to 2016, shipping magnate Maersk Mc-Kinney MOller and Australian professor John Perram transformed research at Odense University in response to Japanese competition in the late 1980s.

It has always been easy for academics to pursue basic research and produce more academics, but the two men boldly moved from applied mathematics and molecular simulation to guidance for robotic welding.

Success didn’t come automatically to Universal
Robots, said CTO Esben Ostergaard.

The AMROSE project of four nine-axis robots proved what was possible for commercial development, but it still could have led to nothing if the Danish government hadn’t stepped in during the economic recession of the early 2000s, Steno recalled during a tour of robotics facilities.

This eventually led to the establishment of the Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller Institute, which in turn helped nurture university spinoffs such as Universal Robots A/S, a leader of Odense’s robotics community.

At UR’s latest (and still-growing) headquarters, co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Esben Ostergaard described how his company has dealt with challenges such as an early lack of funds and maintaining quality as it scales up production on its collaborative robots.

The UR cobots may not be faster than the competition, but the company specializes in just one product line that is as close to “plug and play” as possible. This enables users and integrators to configure it for a wide range of applications without the need for safety cages, he said.

“Mixing people and robots takes advantages of the strengths of both,” said Ostergaard.

Success has followed. Universal Robots has been doubling its employee headcount and robot output annually, Ostergaard said. U.S.-based Teradyne Inc. acquired UR for $285 million last year.

Nurturing practical talent

Denmark faces the same shortage of skilled workers like robotics engineers and programmers that other places do. However, the city of Odense has developed what Carsten described a “safety for talent factor,” in which the skilled workers developed through training and university programs see the benefits of being employed in a particular place.

Scandinavian shared spaces at Cortex Park.

This should outweigh the less-certain long-term prospects at any one company, so that people feel comfortable settling down with their families. Other places have tried to create these conditions, but rarely with web of organizations found in Denmark.

Odense includes institutions such as the Danish Technology Institute, Odense Robotics, and Syddanske Forskerparker (Southern Danish “Knowledge City”), which is part of the Cortex Park complex at the University of Southern Denmark (SDU). The University College Lillebaelt also uses space at Cortex Park.

They help with technology transfer from research to commercialization, provide shared facilities for startups, and connect businesses with one another and investors.

European robotics partnerships provide value

And it’s not just industrial automation. Brad Beach, director of the SDU’s Unmanned Aerial Systems Center, spoke about the “co-evolution of unmanned aerial systems and robotics” as Denmark helps develop European standards for drones and Industry 4.0.

Beach, who also participated in the collocated Nordic UAS Event, acknowledged the challenges for businesses and regulators to keep up with change. “How do we create an agile business system?” he asked. “That affects hiring.”

“There’s a gap with business opportunities, when capital isn’t being invested,” Beach said. “Unmanned systems must demonstrate autonomy and safety in the U.S. and Europe.”

The European Commission is also helping through the Horizon 2020 fund and ECHORD++ (the European Coordination Hub for Robotics Development). Scientific project manager Francesco Maurelli explained that ECHORD++ is supporting several projects to help European robotics researchers and manufacturers collaborate. Beneficiaries must demonstrate that they are solving a real-world, end-user problem, he said.

“There can be resistance,” noted Ib Osterup, CEO of COK, in his discussion of how the public sector can be a key adopter of robotics. “It’s important to have education programs for executives.”

Claus Risager explains Blue Ocean’s business model.

Bernd Liepert, president of euRobotics, described the EC’s Scientific Research Agenda, in which it expects to invest €2.8 billion ($3.18 billion) following an updated multi-annual roadmap and work program. “It’s a combined top down and bottom-up approach of domains versus technology,” he said.

Blue Ocean Robotics has built its business model on identifying problems with clients that can be solved with automation and then spinning off the commercial results.

Claus Risager, co-CEO of Blue Ocean, greeted about 600 people, including the mayor of Odense, at the grand opening of the company’s new facilities.

In addition, a new centralized hospital being built in Odense should provide even more opportunities for healthcare and service robotics.

Ready to face challenges ahead and abroad

European roboticists are fully aware of the competitive challenges they face from heavyweights such as Japan, China, and the U.S. But they are banking on figuring out “how to out-innovate the rest of the world,” as Henrik Christensen, professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, put it.

Christensen has also served as an advisor to President Barack Obama on U.S. robotics policy. “The digital economy is fundamental,” he said.

Christensen cited aging populations, the relentless time pressures of e-commerce, and the need to “revolutionize the educational system” through more accessible, more focused offerings. The Georgia Institute of Technology has awarded 8,000 online masters at 10 percent of the cost of physically attending classes, he said.

In some cases, partnering with researchers and enterprises in China or the U.S. is the best bet. Most of the representatives I spoke with in the RoboBusiness Europe exhibitor areas acknowledged that “if you can’t beat them (head on), join them.” Productive relationships should help both sides.

Robotics Business Review contributor and futurist Aseem Prakash noted that although the Indian market for producing and using robotics is unique, it “presents a huge opportunity” to those who understand it.

European roboticists are optimistic

Attendees at this year’s RoboBusiness Europe seemed more upbeat, thanks in part to the inspirational keynote speeches from European Space Agency professor Andre Schiele; and Danish astronaut Andreas Mogensen.

They described how they worked on the complex teleoperation of a ground-based robot from orbit — in the test case, from the International Space Station to Earth, but it served as proof that the technique would work on the Moon or Mars.

Peter Fisk, CEO of BusinessWorks, gave a high-energy presentation on how Europeans are working on robots that not only are profitable, but that should also benefit humanity.

From exoskeletons helping people walk and drones enabling precision agriculture to cobots making industrial automation available to small and midsize enterprises, he said, robotics can help people respond to a rapidly changing world by “becoming superhuman.”

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