Universal Robots “Meet the Cobot Leaders” Keynote 2020

Universal Robots has completed the first “Meet the Cobot Leaders” session in Asia Pacific, an online interactive congress on cobots and their encompassing role in the future of manufacturing throughout Asia Pacific.
Jürgen von Hollen, president of Universal Robots, James McKew, regional director of APAC, Universal Robots, and Dr Che Fai Yeong, director of DF Automation and Robotics, expounded industry insights and answered questions from industry practitioners and attendees online, with visionary and practical insights on post-pandemic manufacturing, and how manufacturers in Asia Pacific can be future-ready.
COVID-19 – the game changer
The COVID-19 crisis in 2020 exacerbated existing challenges and exposed new vulnerabilities for manufacturers around the world.
The serious disruption to supply chains, sudden material shortages, and steep swings in demand left manufacturers grappling with changes. Labour-intensive manufacturing has been hit painfully by the regional governments’ COVID-19 measures of extended lockdowns and social distancing. But such measures present an opportunity for labour-centric manufacturers to rethink their operations, on ways to keep production going while adhering to regulatory measures, without sacrificing cost efficiency, and to future-proof operations for more resilience. The event converged the luminaries and attendees with a lively exchange of ideas and recommendations.
According to the panel, COVID-19 was a catalyst for further implementation of cobots in applications previously low on the cobot automation radar – in particular medical applications such as swab testing, sterilisation and disinfection. One such example was the disinfecting of aircraft seat arm rests where it makes sense to use cobots rather than have humans carry heavy apparatus. It avoids repetitive strain injuries and ultimately even possible infections.
Opportunities and challenges of our time
There was also a common agreement that one of the biggest opportunities for UR market development was with smaller manufacturers. Jurgen mentions that UR recently celebrated their 15year anniversary. The company started when its founders realised the limited automation possibilities for SME’s. Today nearly half their customer base is large companies who were quick to understand and adopt cobot automation but yet the SME’s still feel it is only meant for bigger players.
McKew agreed with this notion highlighting that the biggest challenge they see is small business being scared off by cost and how to yield return on investment. They need to understand the investment and what this ultimately will bring to their organisation.
This is where the UR team focuses a lot of their attention. Understanding the needs and business objectives of these small businesses and helping them identify and implement their cobot opportunity.
COVID has been good at helping customers understand the benefits of cobots by helping them automate dumb, dirty and dangerous jobs and very importantly, helping them to distance and do this without the need for an increased footprint.
ROI and investment considerations
“UR delivers incredible ROI that will satisfy every financial decision maker. Being able to have a conversation about how cobots allow a distinct benefit in labour variability and managing the high cost of poor quality” says McKew.
Even countries who are highly price sensitive with a volatile exchange rate such as India and Indonesia have shown that cobot implementation makes financial sense.
Price isn’t the barrier according to the UR as customers in lower performing economies and the more than 46 000 cobots installed worldwide have proven. Understanding the full value of the flexibility offered by cobot automation is the key to higher uptake.
Jurgen mentions that cobots are the disrupters of the automation world. It offers customers the flexibility which is the key to business continuity – now more than ever before. It enables a customer to deploy and redeploy a cobot over and over again for every application with minimal disruption. The customisation provided by the UR+ partners are a critical component to business continuity. “A customer should be able to continue producing, as they did today, tomorrow and the next day, regardless of circumstance.
“The key success factor for any company right now is flexibility. As CEO we are going through same pain to forecast what is happening in 3 or 6 months. To be flexible and dynamically adjust your infrastructure to meet customer needs is fundamentally important. COVID has made us realise that business continuity is a huge requirement and that we have to always look at it critically and question it” says Jurgen.
Are robots replacing humans?
On robots replacing humans, the answer is clear. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many layoffs. With people now more worried about job security than ever, companies may face hesitancy at the adoption of further automation. Jurgen pointed out that statistically countries with higher levels of automation and cobot implementation had the lowest rate of unemployment according to pre-COVID studies.
Cobots are not there to replace humans and according to him the UR perspective is that the most effective and efficient system is one that combines human and robot.
James points out that cobots help manufacturers to reopen by taking care of the dull, dirty and dangerous tasks while managing distancing on the factory floor. Without these measures business will remain closed and will face even further financial losses – resulting in further job cuts or ultimate closure.
“With cobots you are ensuring business continuity and you have the capability to work despite a virus or social distancing. As the world becomes more chaotic and unpredictable, humans will become even more irreplaceable,” said Jurgen.
In conclusion Jurgen comments that running a business is about managing risk. “The worst decision is no decision” he says in closing.
Dr Yeong, a name well-associated with robotics and inventions in Malaysia, and a winner of more than 100 awards nationally and internationally, moderated the session. Dr Yeong said after the successful completion of the conference, the cost of non-deployment is ultimately the highest price to pay.

Automation is part of the solution to rebuild areas hit by fires

With an estimated 12.35 million acres of land and 2,500 homes and business having been destroyed in the recent runaway fires that ravaged the landscape since September 2019, Australia is now faced with the enormous and arduous task of rebuilding the country.

While this might seem like an insurmountable task to many, the fires also bring new opportunities to the adjacent industries involved in helping rebuild the homes, buildings and farmland that were lost in the fire, giving an opportunity to jumpstart the economy. This is particularly true in the agriculture industry, which comprised 14 per cent of the total land that was burned by the Australian bushfires. By mid-January, an estimated 820,000 ha of agricultural land had been destroyed across New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.

Rising up from the ashes
Cobot manufacturer Universal Robots, believes that while this tragic event has left a trail of destruction and Australia still needs to recover from the loss to its ecosystem, companies may be able to speed up the process of rebuilding by implementing technological advancements across the spectrum.

With applications ranging from packaging and palletising, assembly, welding, product handling and many more, UR cobots can tackle those tedious tasks that require superhuman abilities to repeat the same movement over and over again for many hours with exactly the same precision. Cobots have been successfully deployed across a range of industries and have become more common in manufacturing environments.

“A big benefit UR cobots hold in this rebuilding process is that it provides manufacturers and industry with the ability to act fast, increase productivity, profits and offer higher quality products,” said Darrell Adams, Head of SEAO at Universal Robots.

Cobots can be programmed, operated and maintained by existing employees, regardless of the team’s previous robotics or automation experience. In fact, the out-of-box experience for an untrained operator to unpack a UR robot, mount it, and program the first simple task is typically less than an hour according to Adams.

Food production accelerated
As far as the agriculture industry is concerned, the company believes that farmers in Australia need all the help they can get. With automated agriculture going from strength to strength, cobots can offer an effective solution. According to a recent report, the market for agricultural robots is expected to reach $35 billion within the next five years.  “Cobots can prove their agricultural worth by assisting producers in getting their businesses back up and running faster and more efficiently,” says Adams.

He notes that UR cobots can be applied to a number of requirements within the agriculture and food processing sector. Robots are successfully used in planting, seeding, fertilising, irrigation, weeding, thinning, pruning, harvesting and milking applications among others.

The company prides itself in the cobot’s ability to handle delicate agricultural processes and products. Such an example can be found in the dairy industry, where a UR robot arm mounted to a small pallet jack is used to disinfect and milk cows, cutting labour costs and time taken to complete the job. The robot takes up no more space than a human milker and doesn’t require any safety caging.

Another application where cobots can be implemented is in the packaging of goods that are sent to market. Adams notes one case study of a UR10 robot, installed at a food manufacturer. The robot worked independently to pack vanilla cream bags into cartons, but also formed part of a network that includes a carton erector, a carton sealer, and a filling machine. “This is one of the real benefits of cobots – it can work alongside workers and form part of your factory process.”

Collaborative robots are also ideal for hygienic food processing environments, where it can operate around the clock during seasonal periods of high production and can be easily redeployed to new applications as needed, helping local farmers reach their production goals faster.

A local success story
Developed by the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in proud partnership with Universal Robots, Harvey, a robotic harvester combines state-of-the-art robotic vision and manipulation techniques to identify and harvest capsicums.

Harvesting labour in Australia ranges from 20 – 40 per cent of operational farming costs and this combined with a shortage of skilled labour can result in some of the crops not being harvested.

In recent trails, Harvey used images from a camera-in-hand system to locate the fruit. A motion planning algorithm was then used to command a novel multi-mode harvesting tool to safely detach the fruit. Results show a fruit harvesting success rate of 76.5% – a significant improvement when compared to the state-of-the-art, which achieved 33% in a similar scenario. Harvey also achieved an average pick time of 20 seconds for this field trial compared to 106 seconds by its predecessor.

This year, QUT will further develop Harvey as part of its involvement in the new Future of Food Systems Cooperative Research Centre backed by $35M in Australian Government funding over 10 years, and $149.6M in cash and in-kind funds from more than 50 participants.

Making cobots accessible to everyone
According to Adams, UR has just released a financial services leasing programme which could prove to be a lifeline for producers who are rebuilding their business. “We are levelling the playing field by enabling all manufacturers to immediately put cobots to work without an upfront capital investment. UR Financial Services offers a fast, low-risk and financially-friendly model to accelerate automation. The partnership makes it easy to upgrade existing cobots, add additional units or test cobots for the first time – and equips users to maximise productivity, quality and profitability, without increasing costs or cash outlay” says Adams.

“It’s time to think more laterally about agriculture. Robotics is the revolutionary new technology which can change the way we think about producing food,” he concluded.