February 03, 2016      

An analysis recently conducted by Eurobarometer for the European Commission found that 84 percent of Danes have a positive view of robots, which along with that of Swedes is the most open attitude toward the use of robots in Europe.

Danish interviewees said they believe that robots are good for society because they can help people. This makes Denmark a highly attractive place, especially to foreign companies, for testing and introducing new health and welfare technology.

Danes are proven early adopters of new technologies, and Denmark has many innovative information and communications technology companies. It is also the most digital European nation, according to the European Commission’s Digital Economy and Society Index. Forbes named Denmark the “best country in the world for doing business,” partly because the “Danish workforce is among the most productive in Europe.”

Europeans Experience Automation Angst

Even though many Danish industrial workers have a positive attitude toward robots, only 22 percent of Danes interviewed by Eurobarometer think that their jobs could at least be partially done by a robot. Only people in Luxembourg (20 percent) and the Netherlands (24 percent) think similarly.

Yet at least half of respondents in Bulgaria (53 percent), Poland (53 percent), Croatia (51 percent), and Hungary (50 percent) think that their current jobs could be done at least partially by robots in the future. Hungary is also one of the countries where the majority of people (49 percent) do not have a positive view of robots, together with Cyprus (46 percent) and Greece (45 percent).

The largest declines in positive attitudes toward robots occurred in Hungary (down 16 percent), France (52 percent, down 15 percent), and Romania (58 percent, down 12 percent). Approval ratings also fell in Finland (73 percent, down 12 percent), Slovakia (73 percent, down 11 percent), Cyprus (46 percent, down 11 percent), and the Netherlands (77 percent, down 10 percent).

It is exactly this lack of knowledge that holds Danish companies back from implementing robotics: They are simply not aware of the technological possibilities and benefits of deploying industrial automation.

The common knowledge on robot technology among Europeans is outdated. It’s limited to the belief that industrial robots can take over only repetitive tasks such as those that were outsourced to Eastern European countries.

Denmark takes a lead

Taking a closer look at industrial robot installations during the past few years, it turns out that Denmark is actually a leader in robotics innovation.

According to the World Robotics Statistics 2014, Denmark is the sixth most robotized country in the world, with a robot density of 166 industrial robot units per 10,000 employees, which is 14 units more than the U.S.

Denmark is thus the fourth most robotized country in Europe, right after Germany (282 units), Sweden (174 units), and Belgium (169 units).

The installation of industrial robots in Danish companies has been rapidly increasing since 2012. In 2014, 608 new industrial robots were installed, around 27 percent more than in 2013.

According to trade union Danish Metal, the installation of industrial robots in Danish companies has been rapidly increasing since 2012. In 2014, 608 new industrial robots were installed, around 27 percent more than in 2013.

The Danish metals and engineering industries have installed most industrial robots (1,554 in 2013), while the food sector and the plastic, glass, and concrete industry follow with 643 and 680 robots, respectively.

The highest increase could be seen from 2006 to 2013 in chemicals and pharmaceuticals, as well as in transport. The timber and transport industries have the highest robot density, with more than 250 installations per 10,000 employees in 2013.

“It has been a brilliant year for ABB,” Steffen Enemark, managing director for ABB Robotics in Denmark. “Robots are deployed in a broader spectrum — and in more industries and applications. We experienced a specific increase within the sectors of medicine, plastic, and food production.”

Room to grow

Despite this rapid development, there is still much room for improvement. Three out of four Danish companies do not deploy industrial robots, according to the Danish Technological Institute.

Seventy-six percent of 825 interviewed companies with production in Denmark do not use robotics in their production and thus lose out on the possibility to enhance their competitiveness.

So, why aren’t Danish companies investing more in robotics?

The Danish Society of Engineers (IDA) interviewed 846 of its members about the state of industrial automation. They estimated that companies can increase their productivity by between 18 to 24 percent with repayment periods of two to five years if they implement all economically viable automation technologies.

With an annual gross value of more than 230 billion Danish kroner ($33.4 billion U.S.) in 2014, this corresponds to an automation potential of 41 billion to 55 billion Danish kroner ($6 billion to 8 billion). Danish warehouses are more in need of automation than factories, respondents said.

“The development within robotics is rapidly increasing, and companies can easily oversee the technological possibilities that can improve their production and competitive ability,” said Kurt Nielsen, director of robot technology at the Danish Technological Institute.

Although Denmark is an automation leader, especially in small and midsize enterprises (SMEs) and low-volume, high-mix production, “it needs to continue investing into efficient production technologies and robotics to keep up with other equally automated countries like Italy, Spain, or France,” said Claus Risager, partner and director at Blue Ocean Robotics.

“Automation is usually a challenge for SMEs because the decision process, implementation, and the maintenance require expert knowledge and time for configuration and programming, which is very costly,” he said. “But times have changed, and today, there are easy-to-program, easy-to-use collaborative robots, which enable Danish workers at SME to operate the robots themselves.”

Outdated knowledge and SME potential

“We have analyzed the use of robots in industry, and the clear picture is that it is largely the smaller companies that do not use robots,” said Allan LyngsO Madsen, chief economist at Danish Metal. “34.6 percent are employed by a company that uses robotics, but only 19.6 percent of companies with fewer than 49 employees have installed industrial robots. Automation potential is therefore evident.”

“But we see a certain resistance from managers, who are skeptical about whether it is worthwhile to automate when the order book primarily consists of small pieces series,” he added. “Therefore, we need to show all the good experiences about how robots fit into production and include both logistics and organization, as well as working environment. We must take one barrier at a time and break them down so that it becomes easy for companies of all sizes to automate.”

LyngsO Madsen pointed out that trade unions actually have a strong desire to accelerate the automation of manufacturing.

“Employees are generally very positive about robots,” he said. “They see them as a tool to retain jobs in Denmark and be a shortcut to healthier work environment, because the robots can reduce the repetitive, manual tasks, thus reducing absenteeism and attrition.”

Members of IDA identified “lack of time, lack of knowledge about automation and, to some extent, lack of capital” as barriers for automation in 2014 as well as 2015.

“The main idea should be to increase the active and proactive counselling for SMEs,” said Cornelius Olesen, chairman of the IDA’s business and growth committee. “This could be done by setting aside a fund from which production companies can receive professional advice of relevant GTS [Advanced Technology Group] institutions or private advisors.”

Seeking skilled labor

Another problem is that young people don’t know that there is high demand from Danish companies for certain technical degrees.

For example, only six students are currently enrolled in the automation technologist program at the Lillebaelt Academy, University of Applied Sciences, and there is room for many more.

A higher average salary for qualified automation technologists is 480,000 Danish kroner or $69,600 per year — another indicator of the demand.

“We would like a combination of both experienced people as well as new graduates in the industry, and if there is no basis for the newly graduated, then this will bring challenges over time,” said Peter Nurup, project manager at Frontmatec, a market-leading automation company.

In our next article, we’ll look at specific examples of how Denmark is investing in automation and trying to overcome negative perceptions about robotics.