In the News
Denmark has made itself a key player in European robotics, which many consider essential to the continent’s economic viability, but what is the secret of its success? Can regions, researchers, and companies learn from that and apply it to their circumstances?
Sure, Paris and the Boston area have strong robotics communities, thanks to university spinoffs; Silicon Valley and Beijing have invested billions of dollars in high-tech; and Munich, Detroit, and Pittsburgh are pivoting from robots making cars to robotic self-driving cars.
But they shouldn’t rest on their laurels, as cities and regions worldwide hungrily look for the right mix of local talent, partnerships, and industry niches to get a piece of the still-growing action in robotics across industries.
Robotics Business Review has already covered robotics in Denmark, but I got to see its companies firsthand and talk directly with people in the industry around RoboBusiness Europe 2016.
Vision and persistence
It’s easy to forget or take for granted the fact that the choices of a few individuals helped make Odense the growing hub for European robotics that it is today. Innovation is good, but technology needs human determination to reach fruition.
As Carsten Steno explained in his book, A Cluster of Success: Universal Robots and the Danish Robotics Movement, 1986 to 2016, shipping magnate Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller and Australian professor John Perram transformed research at Odense University in response to Japanese competition in the late 1980s.
It has always been easy for academics to pursue basic research and produce more academics, but the two men boldly moved from applied mathematics and molecular simulation to guidance for robotic welding.
The AMROSE project of four nine-axis robots proved what was possible for commercial development, but it still could have led to nothing if the Danish government hadn’t stepped in during the economic recession of the early 2000s, Steno recalled during a tour of robotics facilities.
This eventually led to the establishment of the Mærsk Mc-Kinney Moller Institute, which in turn helped nurture university spinoffs such as Universal Robots A/S, a leader of Odense’s robotics community.
At UR’s latest (and still-growing) headquarters, co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Esben Østergaard described how his company has dealt with challenges such as an early lack of funds and maintaining quality as it scales up production on its collaborative robots.
The UR cobots may not be faster than the competition, but the company specializes in just one product line that is as close to “plug and play” as possible. This enables users and integrators to configure it for a wide range of applications without the need for safety cages, he said.
“Mixing people and robots takes advantages of the strengths of both,” said Østergaard.
Success has followed. Universal Robots has been doubling its employee headcount and robot output annually, Østergaard said. U.S.-based Teradyne Inc. acquired UR for $285 million last year.