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Cobots market overview with Esben Östergaard, Co-founder and CTO of Universal Robots.

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“The cobot segment will grow larger than that of classic heavy industrial robots,” said Esben Östergaard, founder of robotics pioneer Universal Robots before the Handelsblatt Innovation Summit.

As per Östergaard, a billion-euro market for cobots with “ 60 percent growth per year”. They are expecting a boom in collaborative robots.

In 2005, he cofounded the cobot leader universal robots and in 2015 it got sold to a US group Teradyne for 1.9 billion Danish Kroner (285 million US dollars). Currently. Östergaard, CEO of the accelerator platform Reinvest Robotics, investors and advisor for young robotics companies. A Nobel prize winner in the robotics segment in 2018.

“Companies like Wandelbots show what potential there is,” Östergaard said.

Mr. Östergaard, you brought the first cobot onto the market in 2008. However, there is still a long way to go before every medium-sized company has a collaborating robot. Why is it taking longer than it was predicted?
The market is growing at 60 percent a year, that’s quite a revolution. There are now 50 to 60 cobot companies and 150 competing products. It will still take some time before all processes are automated, and regulation is slowing things down in some areas. But we are experiencing a real boom.

How big the industry can turn?
The cobot segment will grow more extensive than that of classic heavy industrial robots. It will continue to grow by 60 percent. Experts believe that sales of eight billion dollars are possible in 2026. I think that’s realistic.

Nevertheless, many companies are still reluctant to use cobots.
There are many conservative entrepreneurs, especially in medium-sized companies. If business is good, why should I change anything?

That’s an interesting question: Why should they?
The supply chains have been continuously optimized. The pandemic and the Ukraine war have shown how vulnerable they have become. As a result, there is a trend toward reshoring, and manufacturing is getting closer to consumers. Due to the shortage of skilled workers and the high personnel costs, this will only be possible with more automation. With cobots, it doesn’t matter where you produce. In addition, the pressure to make production more flexible is growing.

Consumers want new products all the time. They don’t want the same phone or pair of shoes as they did a year ago. It has to be a new design and new materials. For this reason, the production lines must be able to be switched over even more quickly. These two trends are driving the flexibilization of production – and that works best with cobots that are easy to reprogram.

“It won’t be easy for the traditional manufacturers”

Who do you think will dominate this growing cobot market in the long term? In the end, maybe the traditional industrial robot manufacturers like FanucKuka, and ABB.
The classic manufacturers have been struggling so far. This is also because sales work very differently with the cobots. When a car factory is built, integrators spend a year building a line with lots of robots, which may then be in service for seven years.

If someone needs a cobot, the sales partner comes in a week, sets up the cobot, briefly trains the staff, and is gone again. That’s a completely different approach. It won’t be easy for the traditional manufacturers, they need completely different partners.

You founded today’s cobot world market leader in 2005. Will Universal Robots maintain this strong position when cobots become a mass market?
Universal Robots still has a 50 percent market share and is growing strongly. However, many new players are also entering the market. Some of them focus on applications. Because the customer doesn’t care which gripper he gets, he wants his problem solved.

Who will earn more money hardware manufacturers or pure software specialists?
From my observation, companies prefer to pay for a hardware product, even if it contains a lot of software.

What role Germany can play? Many startups are pushing into the cobot segment.
Germany has a long tradition in production and automation. But the corona crisis has shown that the country is not as digitized as many thought. I was in Frankfurt during the pandemic and I only had 2G Edge coverage in the middle of the city. This is crazy, in Denmark I have 5G everywhere. Everything works online here too: It doesn’t matter whether you want to do banking or register a child for kindergarten. That’s why the pandemic didn’t slow us down. The work continued seamlessly from home. In Germany, the disruption has yet to succeed.

“Empower employees to become experts in their processes”

How can Germany catch up?
The younger generation is doing a lot right. Companies like Wandelbots show what potential there is. There is also so much knowledge in the country about manufacturing and technology. But the decision-makers in the established companies must be willing to break new ground.

Which ways are these?
The engineers here would like to design the whole process. The worker in the factory is not in demand. But the idea behind cobots is to empower employees to become experts in their processes. That’s not the German approach.

Do we still need people in production in the long run? Or fully automated factories where machines work together with machines?
It is no coincidence that the idea of ​​Industry 4.0 came from Germany. The ideal is that the machines produce without human interaction. This is the engineer’s dream. But this factory is not ideal for premium, small-volume products that are constantly being redesigned. You need people in production. A robot will never know what a perfect product has to look like. You also need manual work. In Industry 5.0, people and machines will work together.

So robots will never completely replace people in factories?
History has shown that countries with the highest robot density often have the lowest unemployment rates. Machines can do simple things, but humans can focus on more important things. No job is 100 percent automatable, but in every job, some parts can be automated. Work is changing, but not going away.

What will be the next big thing in robotics? Will we soon see human-like robots in customer contact?
Robots are just machines. Even in hotels, for example, people don’t want a robot to look like a human. He can clean up there or transport drinks. But human interaction does not need to be automated. That’s why he doesn’t have to look like a human.

“We are still a long way from copying the human hand”

Many robots are still quite clumsy. Why has it not yet been possible to better simulate the movements of the human hand, for example?
If someone could do that, it would be a game changer. The human brain is perfectly geared to coordinate our eyes and our hands. In addition, hands have enormous abilities. Once workers were blindfolded – they could continue to work. Then they put gloves on them. Without feeling in their fingers they could not work. That’s why a lot is still done by hand in assembly. We are still a long way from copying the human hand.

Will artificial intelligence be the game changer that can bring the breakthrough here?
We have to talk about regulation, and that’s a topic that pisses me off. The EU is currently revising the Machinery Directive and wants to pass an “AI Act”. I understand that you want to fix that. But if you have to go through the technical inspection every time you reprogram something on a cobot or set it up differently, it can take weeks and cost a lot of money. If that happens, we will lose our competitiveness.

In my opinion, India also should push themselves in the cobots market. The country is well connected with 4G connections. As it is evolving in the next stage of 5G connections. A roadmap to more growth in the technology arena.

Moreover, the UPI payments or Paytm have been a success. A cashless society that even many developed nations struggle to adapt to.

An immense opportunity to develop application-oriented cobots in the cleaning sectors, in the transport or government to private hospitals.


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