Munich The risk of infection is currently the big issue in factories. But not all of them are affected. “The robot does not have to adhere to distance rules,” says Helmut Schmid, head of Germany and Western Europe at Universal Robots.
Collaborative robots could work right next to a human or next to another robot. Many companies are currently happy to be able to continue producing flexibly with the help of cobots and lightweight robots. “I am sure that automation and robotics will experience a strong boom after Corona,” Schmid expects.
Of course, Corona also affects the robotics industry at short notice. With a share of around 30 percent, the auto industry is the most important customer for industrial robots. According to the latest forecast by the international association IFR, the business stagnated last year with only 421,000 robots sold due to the industry downturn. The industry had previously set one record after another for many years. Now the corona crisis is also dampening the willingness to invest in the automotive industry and other important sectors worldwide.
But there is great hope among the robotics and automation specialists that the manufacturers will be among the profiteers in the long term. Especially the so-called cobots, about which there was great euphoria a few years ago, but which have not yet established themselves on the broad market, could now possibly make a breakthrough on a broader front – even if there are still some obstacles.
Cobots have gone through the classic hypecurve, says robotics engineer Titanilla Komenda from Fraunhofer Austria. The great initial euphoria was over – but also the frustration valley afterwards. “Now we are on an ascending branch again. Many useful applications open up, ”says Komenda.
The collaborative robots do not have to be behind the protective fence, but can do their work right next to the human colleague. The robot arms are used, for example, in the electronics industry to hand over parts to employees or to put the batteries of a mobile phone in a test station.
Most recently, industrial robot manufacturers had sales of $ 16.5 billion. 2.4 million robots are in operation in the factories. The share of collaborative robots in the robotics market was only three percent in 2018, according to the world industry association IFR. “But we can see that this proportion continues to grow, with above-average growth rates,” said IFR General Secretary Susanne Bieller the Handelsblatt.
The segment is therefore attractive for the industry. In addition to pioneers such as Universal Robots, established manufacturers such as Kuka for example with the lightweight robot LBR iisy and the Swiss competitor FIG ventured into the segment with the Yumi. Bieller emphasized that the cobots would not replace traditional robots: “They open up new markets and new applications. This makes them extremely important for the further development of the market. ”
A typical activity for the robotic arms is the “pick and place”, ie the gripping and placing of objects. While the classic industrial robots can move loads weighing several hundred tons, sometimes even tons, the load capacities of the cobots are mostly in the single-digit kilogram range.
Corona can be an initial spark for new automation applications, believes Fraunhofer expert Komenda: “We often act in old habits. Only in times of crisis are you forced to rethink. ”Given the pandemic, cobots could show their strengths. On the one hand, the robot arms could replace individual employees who are ill or who are taken out of the shift in order to comply with distance rules.
Disinfection robot for China
In addition, Corona could lead to production being brought back to Europe, for example. Automated, very flexible solutions would then be required in high-wage countries. “The human-robot collaboration has the advantage that I can automate very flexibly,” says Komenda.
The robot manufacturer has already received many inquiries from the pharmaceutical industry, from laboratories and hospitals, observes Universal Robots Germany boss Schmid. “For blood samples, for example, robots can help to analyze them safely.” Industrial companies with robots could currently also run more variable production times if shifts were divided, so that not too many people work in production at the same time.
The industry association VDMA also expects “a decent boost” for robotics and automation after the corona crisis. Patrick Schwarzkopf, Managing Director of Robotics and Automation, says that the industry cannot yet uncouple itself from the economic downturn. After all, a few days ago there was a signal that classic customers are not failing either: BMW ordered 5000 robots from Kuka over a period of several years, which are to be used primarily in body construction. However, such large orders are likely to be the exception at the moment.
In the world after Corona, says Schwarzkopf, supply chains could be reconsidered and production could be distributed to more locations. Production that was relocated to Asia could be brought back to Europe in some cases. “That then requires investments in automation technology.”
Schwarzkopf is also convinced that the topic of service robotics will get a “huge push that will have a long-term effect”. Autonomous disinfection robots are already in operation in numerous hospitals. According to the industry association IFR, Chinese hospitals have ordered 2,000 UVD disinfection robots from the Danish manufacturer Blue Ocean Robotics.
“And in times when visits are prohibited, communication robots roll through nursing homes and enable virtual visits by relatives via video conference,” says Schwarzkopf. The robot “James” was developed by the start-up RobShare, which belongs to the Hahn group. The robot visits people in quarantine and connects family members via video conference.
Virtual trade fair instead of automatica
However, it remains to be seen whether the hopes of a boom are really fulfilled. Cobots – like the service robots – have been talked about a lot in recent years, for example at the Hanover Fair.
But one-armed helpers are rarely seen in the factory halls. At the start, the new machines were often quite expensive. In addition, the correct application places had to be found. “According to initial estimates, the cobots’ share of industrial robotics is still well below ten percent,” says VDMA Managing Director Schwarzkopf, “but the potential is enormous.” According to the experts at Interact Analysis, the cobot market could change by 2027 almost tenfold compared to 2018 to $ 5.6 billion.
However, there are still various factors that brake. The big challenges – security, certification and simple programming – have not yet been overcome, says Fraunhofer expert Komenda. The lightweight robots are much easier to program today than they were a few years ago. “But ideally, a cobot should be a tool like a cordless screwdriver that anyone can use without instruction.”
The cobot manufacturers have opened up a wide customer field with the small and medium-sized companies from different industries, says IFR Managing Director Bieller. “However, manufacturers and integrators first have to develop a certain level of process know-how.” In the early days of the cobots, the impression was created that they could do without any system integration. “However, this is only the case for very simple applications,” says Bieller.
Risk assessment in complex applications requires a lot of experience, says Bieller. “It is also a misconception that cobots are the all-round answer to all questions.” Especially when high speeds, precision or high payloads are required, traditional industrial robots in combination with a sensor skin or corresponding cameras could make more sense. Nevertheless, all experts expect further high growth rates – albeit at a comparatively low level.
The market leader in cobots is still the pioneer Universal Robots from Denmark, which Esben Østergaard founded in 2005. Last year, the company, which now belongs to Teradyne, had sales of $ 248 million. The robot manufacturer actually wanted to present its latest models at the Automatica trade fair in Munich. But that had to be postponed because of Corona. Universal Robots is inviting you to a virtual in-house exhibition these days.
No specialists needed
The response from potential customers is positive, says their Germany and Western Europe boss Schmid. He also admits: “The big hype is over.” But now comes the “phase of correct application”. Completely new areas have opened up for the market, for example in logistics, in the food industry and in medical technology.
A cobot is also economically very attractive for small and medium-sized companies, says Schmid. “A robot arm usually pays for itself after six to nine months.” The problem is rather that many medium-sized companies are not aware that solutions are available from as little as EUR 60,000 and that no robotics specialists are necessary for the implementation. As a result, providers have only reached three to five percent of potential customers. The market potential is therefore huge.
For Universal Robots, Schmid is therefore still confident in the long term. “There was a very positive mood on the market before Corona,” he says. The company is currently benefiting from its affiliation with Teradyne. Thanks to the financially strong partner, there has so far been no short-time work. As the global market leader in cobots, it would then benefit greatly from the expected boom after the crisis.
At least VDMA Managing Director Schwarzkopf does not believe that the robots will completely replace the workers in the factories in the future: “Humans and the specifically human skills are still indispensable in modern production.”
But some robots can step in if necessary. For example, the sales force of Universal Robots is no longer allowed to visit customers in factories in many countries. The Danish company therefore wants to make a virtue of necessity: after its virtual in-house exhibition, it wants to send a robot to customers. The aim of the demonstration is to show what it can do – and also to take on initial tasks for customers. Control is done remotely. “This is our first sales robot,” says Schmid.
More: BMW orders 5,000 robots from Kuka