September 20, 2013      

There’s something about this small Danish robot manufacturer that can get folks up on their feet cheering for it.

I’m one. It’s kind of like watching the underdog in a Hollywood movie transforming itself from lovable weakling with a great idea into an Iron Man-esque hero for co-robots. Because of the transformation, the company’s stature in the robotics biz is climbing fast!

Universal Robots (UR) is a flat-out news maker. Robotics Business Review has been following UR for two years; now it’s just copped a flashy piece in Technology Review. No sooner did we run a story about UR gaining entry at Volkswagen, then here we go again: this time at BMW’s 7,000-employee plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina that rolls out 1,000 vehicles each day.

UR’s robots are working with a door sealant that keeps sound and water out of the car, and is applied before the door casing is attached. “It’s pretty heavy work because you have to roll this glue line to the door,” says Stefan Bartscher, head of innovation at BMW. “If you do that several times a day, it’s like playing a Wimbledon match.”

Co-robots present new possibilities

Remarkably, both buyers, Volkswagen and BMW, have interesting reasons for buying the robots. They’re thinking about people on their assembly lines: making things easier for older workers as well as ergonomics for difficult manufacturing processes.

Those reasons in and of themselves are new ways of thinking for automakers. Could it be that just the availability of a workplace co-worker robot engendered such thinking by management at Volkswagen and BMW? Did the sudden emergence of this new-age robot’s ability to mitigate assembly line tedium and difficult jobs spark the ideas?

Better, when and where will UR strike again? Two of the loftiest names in the auto biz have employed the robots, the trickle effect to other manufacturers is certainly at play.

esben ostergaard

The market entry of UR’s robots is a page out of Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point: “The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire;” as well as a true paradigm shift lifted from the pages of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. UR seems to have bottled up generous portions of each.

UR’s founder and technical director, Esben Ostergaard, was just awarded the DIRA Automation Prize 2013 (Dansk Robot Network Automatiseringsprisen).

The award jury, as reported in Jern og Maskin Industrien, commented “It was probably not many people who figured that Denmark should get a place on the map in the production of industrial robots. But that’s exactly what Universal Robots in Odense has done.”

The little company that could

Every robot startup needs to read Universal Robots’ backstory to see just what it takes to crack the success barrier and turn heads in robotics.

Founded in 2005 by engineering pals Esben Ostergaard, Kasper StOy, and Kristian Kassow at the Syddansk Universitet, Odense, Denmark, the three friends quickly came to the conclusion that the robotics market was unnecessarily dominated by heavy, expensive, and unwieldy robots. They recognized a need for robot technology accessible to small and medium-sized enterprises. By 2009, the first UR5 robots were available on the Danish and German market.

Return on investment for the single-arm, $34,000 UR5 is six to eight months, claims UR’s vice president and CCO, Thomas Visti. Revenue growth jumped from $676,000 in 2009 to about $8.7M by 2011, reports Germany’s MM MaschinenMarkt.

Ostergaard is bringing his Universal Robots show to Silicon Valley this October. He’s delivering a keynote, Toppling Tradition: Making Robots Small, Cheap, Dexterous and Friendly, at RoboBusiness 2013 (Santa Clara, October 23-24).