Universal Robots’ Østergaard Discusses Engelberger Award for Robotics Excellence

Universal Robots CTO Esben Østergaard is a winner of this year's Engelberger Award. Credit: Universal Robots

June 13, 2018      

Late last month, the Robotics Industry Association announced the 2018 recipients of the Joseph F. Engelberger Awards, which it said recognize “excellence in technology development, application, education, and leadership in the robotics industry.” One of this year’s honorees is Esben H. Østergaard, chief technology officer at Universal Robots A/S, which led the evolution of collaborative robots.

The other recipient is Gudrun Litzenberger, general secretary of the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), which produces studies on the state of the global robotics industry.

“Her work has established the IFR as the leading source of global robotics statistics during an era when the interest in robotics is growing exponentially,” said Jeff Burnstein, president of the Robotics Industry Association (RIA). “Furthermore, Gudrun has been a tireless advocate for our industry throughout the world.”

Burnstein stated that Østergaard’s “emphasis on robots that work side by side with people has created enormous interest among many small and medium-sized companies who never even considered robots before.”

The Joseph F. Enbelberger Award for Robotics Excellence

The Joseph F. Enbelberger Award for Robotics Excellence

The awards are named after the “father of industrial robotics,” who co-founded Unimation in the 1950s. They have been given out since 1977 and have reflected the growth and evolution of automation. The Engelberger winners will receive $5,000 and a medallion at a ceremony in Munich, Germany, on June 20.

Engelberger Award vindicates innovation

“The Engelberger Award was a bit of a surprise,” Østergaard told Robotics Business Review. “For me, it’s the No. 1 prestigious honor in the world. It’s really a clap on the shoulder, a sign of approval for what we’ve been doing in the industry.”

However, it wasn’t always that way. Industrial automation providers initially scoffed at upstart makers of collaborative robot arms, or cobots, which were smaller and slower than the robots used in heavy manufacturing.

“When we invented the collaborative robot, people were laughing at it. In the beginning, there was not a lot of respect,” Østergaard recalled. “It has been a journey. In the past few years, people have been noticing. It’s a legitimate market; now we’re getting traction.”

Cobots such as the UR product line are designed to be safer around humans and easier to use than their caged industrial cousins.

“Our robots are easy to program and easy to move around,” noted Østergaard. “The built-in safety is changing manufacturing.”

“We’re actually moving away from 24/7 production to something more human-friendly, lights-on,” he added. “It’s a paradigm shift — robots as a tool people can use rather than big robots behind fences that people fear will take their jobs.”

Cobot challenges remain

“The challenge now is that most small and midsize enterprises [SMEs] don’t yet know what cobots can do for them,” Østergaard said. “Spreading that awareness is our main challenge, but there is lots of market potential.”

Since its purchase by Teradyne, Universal Robots has access to a global distribution network, but there are regional differences.

“Regulations and the perception of robots in North America are similar to those in Europe,” explained Engelberger Award winner Østergaard. “Labor shortages are becoming an issue.”

“In other parts of the world, the salary levels are lower, but they’re increasing,” he said. “In Asia, where most of the world’s manufacturing is now done, low salaries aren’t the reason to automate — it’s the consistency, quality, product flow.”

“More recently, a very complete supply chain has been a driver [of automation], particularly in China,” Østergaard said. “We see all areas adopting robots.”

2018 Engelberger Award winner, Universal Robots CTO Esben Østergaard

Universal Robots CTO Esben Østergaard

Helping users adopt automation

As part of its efforts to educate the growing robotics market, Universal Robots launched its UR+ ecosystem and UR Academy to train in-house staffers and end users.

“We want to give anybody the possibility to automate and get people away from working like robots,” Østergaard said. “The initiatives work together. UR+ brings technology to a more accessible level, wrapping it into an experience for the engineer at a factory.”

“UR+ includes an easy-to-use programming interface and language,” he said. “You don’t need a laptop to control a camera or a gripper. We have several hundred partners feeding into that ecosystem of accessories, making it easier to automate.”

The Universal Robots Academy includes nine free training modules, and 28,000 people have taken the online courses so far.

“We can see it’s working — internally and externally,” said Østergaard. “A line worker can take this class and get a certificate saying they completed this course. This takes away some of the fear of using robots and helps workers take the first step to becoming robot programmers.”

“We’re moving expertise from the factory floor to where people can become experts in quality, process, and how parts should be handled,” he said. “By giving workers the ability to automate their own tasks, we take advantage of their core production knowledge.”

“When companies get cobots, they hire more people,” asserted the Engelberger Award recipient. “Robots grow their business because they can do more. People can do more with their time.”

What is ‘Industry 5.0?’

Østergaard recently wrote about “Industry 5.0,” when European initiatives are still talking about Industry 4.0 or the fourth industrial revolution.

“That was slightly tongue in cheek,” he said. “Industry 4.0 is the Internet applied to manufacturing technology, business models, and products. Industry 4.0 is everything as a service, like Uber, AirBnB, or Hotels.com.”

“We’ve gone from mechanization to steam power, electrification, and computers to the Internet,” said Østergaard. “Robots plus data and advanced supply chain software connected by the Internet now applies to value creation.”

“But it has removed something valuable from the process — the human touch,” he observed. “In the 1800s, you knew who made a table or where leather came from. Now, people who can afford it buy personalized items. We don’t want the same beer; we want local beer.”

“Industry 5.0 enables flexibility in factories,” Østergaard said. “Not just SMEs, but also large companies need to address product life cycles that are getting shorter and shorter. We’re combining mass production with the ability to satisfy the human need for uniqueness.”

Looking forward

“To be human is to use technology,” Østergaard said. “The more technology we have, the more it frees us up to do more.”

“Some people have the romantic dream of life a few hundred years ago, but they may not realize that there were no washing machines, infant mortality was high, and a box of potatoes would have to last all winter,” he said. “If we distribute wealth and avoid using technology to do bad things, humankind can move forward.”

“Robots are a tool; they’re really about freeing people from dangerous, boring work,” concluded the Engelberger Award winner. “We can create better lives by focusing on value-added work that people are better at.”