Autonomous mobile platforms are becoming a more common sight in manufacturing and supply chain operations, but as with any robot, businesses need the right tool for the job. Mobile Industrial Robots ApS has experienced strong growth, but it has not rested on its laurels. The company recently added the MiR500, a larger robot, to its product line.
MiR recently announced that it had reached production capacity for the MiR500 in its first month. The company stated that U.S. manufacturers purchased 40% of its orders as of the end of last year.
Cabka North America, one of the largest manufacturers of plastic pallets, said that it plans to use the MiR500 for moving pallets and to “prepare outbound deliveries at night when there is no activity in the warehouse.”
Denmark-based Kvernland Group, which produces agricultural machinery, credits the MiR500 with helping increase safety and productivity in its 592,000 sq. ft. (55,000 square-meter) factory.
Robotics Business Review spoke with Ed Mullen, vice president, Americas, at MiR about the MiR500, the company’s growth, and the evolving market for mobile robots.
MiR500 adds capacity
Q: How did you come to the MiR500?
Mullen: Our flagship is the MiR100, which was developed with the intention of being different from what else was on the market. We implemented a unique user interface, and our platform tool is super-flexible and is easy to commission by anyone at any skill level.
The MiR200 is the same platform, with different gearing and battery management.
Seventy to 80% of adopters were global multinationals looking to implement AMRs [autonomous mobile robots]. A common reaction was, “This is great, but we’re limited by the size of what we can move for finished goods or bigger bulk materials to supply production lines.”
We started to think of how to handle that and looked at cart designs. Customers wanted something bigger, and as manufacturing facilities condense with less and less open aisles, everybody is looking to eliminate forklift traffic.
At the same time, we had to keep in mind what was important to our existing customers. We’re always trying to understand applications, collecting data, and putting it into our design roadmap.
Q: How does the MiR500 compare with its predecessors?
Mullen: The MiR500 spun out of customer research and feedback, and we introduced it at IMTS in September. It’s a completely new design compared with our other models.
We looked at the MiR100 and 200 from an engineering perspective. What were the limitations, challenges, and how to scale up?
The MiR500 has a metallic body, and it has easy-access side panels for electronics. We also added lighting so that the robot looks more like a vehicle, with white on the front corners and red on the rear. They also function as directional signals.
The core operating sensors — including the latest lidar from Sick — are Ethernet-based, with higher resolution and faster communications. The 3D camera to see in front is up higher.
We just supply a base, a tool to move around indoor facilities. It’s not a complete solution. As with the MiR100 and 200, it’s easy to integrate accessories, like complex arms, conveyors, power, and communications. Custom integrators and distributors can complete the solution easily quickly.
Q: Can you describe some of your partnerships for sales and support?
Mullen: We have a worldwide distribution network that is responsible for selling and supporting our customers. In the U.S. alone, we have 27 distributors.
160% revenue growth
Q: Did you expect MiR’s growth to be so strong for the second year in a row?
Mullen: Yes. We forecasted DKK 200 million [$30.67 million U.S.] for this year. This was of course a very ambitious growth target in a relatively young market, but in the past couple of years, we have seen some positive trends. We have built an organization that is ready to seize the opportunities in the market. We also knew that the MiR500 would open up many new opportunities for us.
In 2017, we started to see that many of our large, multinational customers went from a test phase and verification of applications to actually deploying our robots into their manufacturing and logistics sites in multiple plants. That trend continued in 2018, when companies started buying fleets of 15 to 25 robots.
Q: How many robots did you sell this past year?
Mullen: We cannot share a specific number, but at the end of 2018, we sold more than 150 robots per month.
Q: What would you say is your competitive advantage compared with other mobile platforms?
Mullen: The flexibility of our mobile robots is quite unique; we provide an open-source platform that can easily be customized for customers’ individual needs with different top modules.
The flexibility also means that the robots can be used in different levels of automation and can work “out of the box.”
They can also be used with their own user-friendly interface in semi-automated solutions, where they are summoned by humans.
However, the open-source system also applies to the software. With their full-featured REST-API, the robots can be integrated into a company’s other communications systems, such as ERP.
The mobile robots become more and more important for workflow, and companies can’t afford downtime. If the mobile robots stop working, it affects the entire production.
As a result, performance and quality are extremely important factors, and we provide a highly sophisticated robot that offers the highest levels of performance.
MiR’s market opportunities
Q: Do you see strong interest from a particular sector, such as automotive or e-commerce?
Mullen: We have customers in many different sectors, from food and beverage to pharmaceuticals and fashion, but so far, automotive and electronics and semiconductors are our largest sectors. There are many different reasons for that, but traditionally, these sectors have been the fastest to adopt new technologies.
E-commerce and logistics are also important sectors with a huge potential for us.
Q: How does the “mobile robots as a service” program help companies adopt and implement your systems?
Mullen: The leasing option means we are now able to offer a more flexible payment solution, and as there is no cash-out, a lower monthly cost, and immediate payback from the robots. This will allow more companies to adopt this new technology.
Many of our current and potential customers want to lease our mobile robots in the same way as they are leasing electronic pallet lifters and AGVs [automatic guided vehicles], which are rented or leased 95% of the time.
Companies want to invest in their core business and not in machines and logistics robots, which is why RaaS is a good option for them, as the robots become a small monthly cost and not a direct investment.
Looking ahead for autonomous mobile robots
Q: What are the challenges with scaling up?
Mullen: There are a ton of challenges with scaling up for manufacturing, but Teradyne gives us the resources and expertise to help with changing some manual processes, adding quality controls, and investing in developer teams. Having such a parent company gives us more stability for innovation.
It took two and a half years to get our name out there and our technology exposed. Our roadmap for the next five years is to make our products more functional and easy to use.
We’ll bring in things like AI software to make our robots more flexible, robust, and smarter.
We’re 140 people strong, and we expect that to double in the next 12 to 18 months, along with production.
Q: What sorts of staffers are you looking to hire?
Mullen: We are looking to hire in all departments. We will hire many for R&D in Denmark so we can continue developing new products and features, but we will also strengthen our global sales and support organization, so we keep close to our markets. In fact, we plan to go from 35 to 90 people in sales and marketing in 2019.
Q: Do you anticipate the market to keep growing this fast this year?
Mullen: The MiR500 is taking off — early adopters love them. At the end of the year, we expected something like 1,000 orders, just for the MiR500.
Yes, we have high expectations for 2019 as well. All indications show that the market for mobile robots will keep growing over the coming years, and we see a great potential in all sectors, so 2019 should be another great year for MiR.
The more competition there is in this space, the more it validates how strong this space is. We’re focusing on developing a platform that’s superior to anything else and priced better than anything else on the market.
Q: How has your relationship with Teradyne evolved? Since both MiR and collaborative robot arm maker Universal Robots are both owned by Teradyne, are there plans to team up?
Mullen: Teradyne is a strong partner for us with a lot of experience and capital, and they support us in this great growth process. We continue to run very independently, but of course we can and do take advantage of their general expertise.
There are plans among some high-profile customers and distributors to integrate with UR’s cobots. We will work more closely with our sibling company, and we can expect in 2019 to supply as one part number.
Q: What are some new products that you’re working on for 2019?
Mullen: We can’t reveal so much yet about product news in 2019. We can say that we are constantly looking into the market needs, and we will keep developing products that can help customers optimize their internal logistics.
This means we will soon be launching a new fleet management system that is just as user-friendly and intuitive as our robot interface. As customers are deploying larger fleets of robots, we want to make it as easy as possible to prioritize tasks and control the robot traffic for our customers.