On March 9th of this year, Universal Robots announced it was releasing 20 software and hardware application oriented kits. The kits themselves fall into 7 different classes including Welding, Quality Inspection, Material Handling, Finishing, Machine Tending, Assembly and Dispensing. As an example, the Assembly group includes include 3 separate kits for Screwdriving, Nut Driving and Inserting.
According to Universal representatives, the various kits were developed in their conjunction with the company’s many partners, who provide deep sector knowledge and application specific expertise. See the article “UR+ Application Kits Look to Simplify Cobot Deployments” article in Collaborative Robotics Trends for more details.
As the name for the product set implies, the “UR+ Application Kits” are an extension of Universal’s UR+ platform, an extensive collection of products and technologies such as grippers and end-effectors, vision systems, simulation software, programming tools and more, certified to interoperate seamlessly with the company’s family of UR collaborative robots. ‘Extension’ in the previous sentence is, perhaps, the wrong word for the addition of the new application kits to the UR+ ecosystem. ‘Bifurcation’ serves better, as the company now describes the UR+ ecosystem offerings as consisting of – 1) UR+ Components and 2) UR+ Application Kits.
“Adoption of collaborative robotics systems is strong, but market penetration is still minimal, which portends well for Universal and its parent company Teradyne.”
Application Oriented Solutions
Adoption of collaborative robotics systems is strong, but market penetration is still minimal, which portends well for Universal and its parent company Teradyne. Collaborative robots are is still considered non-traditional among many, even as they become ever more normalized through use, extensive media coverage and new product introductions. Still, Universal is an industrial robotics company at heart and, in most regards, have followed a pattern common among suppliers of traditional articulated robotic arms.
Universal is the market share and mindshare for collaborative robots, and as a result the company’s UR+ Application Kits announcement is welcome and important, but not necessarily surprising. Offering application-oriented solutions is common method for industrial robotics companies to expand their customer base and solution set (see Kuka, ABB, Fanuc and others). In a similar manner, so too is developing a global network of distributors. From the beginning, Universal aggressively sought out distributors throughout the world and secured agreements at a rapid rate, a key reason for the company’s market leading position at this time.
For both large and small industrial robotics suppliers, application-oriented solutions hold the promise of continuous product introductions, an expanding customer base, and the addition of incremental revenue streams. By basing individual application offerings on standard systems and modules (their own or those of their partners), as well as limiting application support to the most promising markets, companies can avoid the problems associated with supporting a large number of product variants.
Easy, Relatively Speaking
Since 2008, when Universal Robots sold their first six axis UR5 system, the company has portrayed the key value proposition of their UR family of articulated arms as ease of set-up and integration, ease of programming and ease of use, with the concomitant benefits of fast deployment, greater flexibility and reduced operational costs. This was and is true, but ‘easy’ is a relative term.
Compared to traditional industrial robotics platforms, Universal’s solutions are, on the whole, easier to install and utilize. Still, for many businesses, especially those small-to-medium manufactures that were the primary target for collaborative robotics systems early on, cobots were still too difficult to deploy and program/reprogram even for common manufacturing tasks. It is for this reason why the use of collaborative robots initially found traction among larger manufacturers who had in-house robotics expertise or could afford to bring in technical assistance. These larger companies found collaborative systems a very use addition to their robotics automation armamentarium.
In many instances, these same integrators focus on small-to-medium firms, those companies eschewed by the larger automation integrators whose business models mandate engagements of six figures or more.
A New Class of Integrators
Over time, collaborative systems have become even easier to set-up and program. Still, automation integrators are often necessary for incorporating collaborative robots into production lines, integrating them with other systems, and programming them. As a result, many larger systems integrators have added collaborative robots, usually Universal’s UR cobots, into the mix of supported systems for robotics integration projects.
At the same time, a new class of systems integrator have come to the fore that specialize in collaborative robotics systems, much in the same way they specialize in specific tasks, applications or vertical market segments. In many instances, these same integrators focus on small-to-medium firms, those companies eschewed by the larger automation integrators whose business models mandate engagements of six figures or more.
By easing and speeding of collaborative robotics deployments, UR’s “UR+ Application Kits” benefits all members of a collaborative robotics system integration continuum that that ranges from the largest, full stack automation integrators on one extreme, to smaller collaborative robotics specialty firms and everyone else in between, to say nothing of in-house robotics engineers.
An Opportunities Roadmap
Universal Robots is a collaborative robotics pioneer. With great determination and effort, the company pushed the value proposition of cobots and executed their business plan, becoming both the collaborative robotics market share leader, and the face of the collaborative robotics sector. In many ways, however, the company has followed in the footsteps of the older, traditional suppliers of industrial robotics systems, as UR’s release of application-oriented solutions – the “UR+ Application Kits” – attest.
In fact, traditional industrial robotics suppliers have provided an opportunities roadmap for Universal and their partner companies. Like Universal, these older robotics suppliers introduced application-oriented solutions at some point that focused on common manufacturing tasks. Over time, the number and breadth of these offerings increased.
Universal’s introduction of their UR+ Application Kits should be celebrated. But an expansion of the 20 or so Application Kits is required and will take place. Adding multiple options for similar processes (ex. more welding kits), and adding new tasks (ex. riveting, grinding) are the first that come to mind. Speaking broadly, the UR+ Application Kits are manufacturing centric, and discrete manufacturing at that. UR+ Application Kits could also be developed to directly support other industries including agriculture (ex. potting), food manufacturing (ex. slicing, food handling), healthcare (ex. physiotherapy) and more.
Dan Kara is VP, Robotics at WTWH Media. He can be reached at dkara[@]wtwhmedia.com.