IMAGINE a co-worker on the factory floor who doesn't need a lunch or tea break. Plus, "he" has as much energy at the start of the day as at the end of it - and sometimes even does two consecutive shifts without a wage.
Welcome to the world of a robot co-worker. A company in Denmark, Universal Robots (UR), makes machines that can work alongside human workers on production lines in various industries. And because of their relatively cheap price, they are found in many small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs).
There have been instances (mainly in Europe) of companies, due to labour shortage, deploying UR robots to replace workers who were on prolonged sick leave.
Industrial robots are not something new. They have been around for several decades, especially in industries such as automotive and aerospace. However, these have usually been big clumsy machines which require a large operating area sealed off with safety fences to prevent accidental injury.
Thanks to miniaturisation of electronic components as well as advances in software programming, companies such as Universal Robots have managed to build robots which are easy to install, safe and require an area of operation that's the size of what a human operator needs.
In a recent interview with BizIT, Enrico Krog Iversen, CEO of Universal Robots, noted that through a rigorous process of research and development, the company has created lightweight robots which can be mounted on the wall with the same ease as mounting a TV. If required, they can also be shifted from one location to another very easily.
"This empowers users with the flexibility to maximise the potential of the robots. Unlike previous-generation products, our robots can be taken in and out of production lines with ease without the need to overhaul the floor layout.
"This is a big boon for manufacturers who require robots to complete one-time tasks for small batches or seasonal production orders. The robots reduce unnecessary costs."
Universal Robots owes it origin to a project started by three young men from the Southern University of Denmark. They were exploring the commercial market for robots with emphasis on the food industry.
They found that there weren't too many companies using robots, and those that wanted to had to make do with whatever was available in the market. They found that only large companies could afford to deploy industrial robots to automate their production lines.
Mr Iversen recalls that in those days, robots were expensive, unsafe, unwieldy and heavy. "The troika of young engineers was bewildered when they came across a 100kg robot being used to place pepperoni on pizza. So in 2003, they came up with an idea of creating a robot which was light, affordable and easy to install, program and use."
Universal Robots was founded in 2005 with the help of funding from Syddansk Innovation. By 2008, fresh funding was required and that was when Danish venture capital fund Vækstfonden and Mr Iversen pitched in with more funding.
The total investment from 2005 to 2008 was around S$2.3 million. Mr Iversen invested in his personal capacity and became one of the majority shareholders. Shortly after, he was appointed Universal Robots' CEO with the primary task of commercialising the product.
According to a review done by the National University of Singapore, Universal Robots has experienced substantial growth since the first UR robot entered the market in 2009. It has secured orders from many well-known European brands such as Lear, Oticon, Boch, BMW and Volkswagen. In Asia, it counts companies such as Indian automotive giant Bajaj, and South Korea's LG and Samsung among its customers.
The review also notes that investing in UR's technology presents good value for manufacturers. Due to the technology used, companies can start to use the robot the day they receive it.
Mr Iversen says a significant change that has been ushered in by the company's products is the concept of "co-bots" in which humans and robots work side-by-side without the need for expensive fencing (subject to risk assessment) or sacrificing expensive real estate to provide a safe working environment.
"Our robots are equipped with a state-of-the-art 'stop-force' safety feature. The built-in software generates a protective stop if the robot meets substantial resistance - hugely minimising the occurrence of serious workplace accidents."
Mr Iversen adds that the robots have found traction in the market because of the ease of use, low installation time and the variety of jobs they can carry out.
"Having robots that are easy to program and deploy gives manufacturers the edge in today's fast-paced environment, where output must be delivered cost-effectively and manpower is scarce.
"Far from requiring a background in engineering, our robots can be programmed by shop-floor workers with ease using an intuitive program via a teach pendant which functions like an iPad. Making the set-up and installation user-friendly reduces deployment time, downtime and maximises return on investment."
Mr Iversen says that, financially, 2013 was a great year for Universal Robots. "Worldwide, our revenue grew more than 70 per cent year-on-year. We are very bullish about the impact that our products will have in the market . . . We are opening new offices and expanding our distribution network by partnering multiple distributors in more countries and unexplored markets. Globally, we are 100-people strong."
He adds that Asia-Pacific has performed even better than the global average. Business in this region grew more than 400 per cent in 2013 as companies here are starting to become more receptive to the idea of automating their production lines.
"We are aiming to double our turnover this year in the region," he adds.
The Universal Robots CEO adds that manufacturers in countries such as Japan, Korea, China, Germany and North America have been at the forefront in adopting robotic solutions to automate their factories.
"However, I believe that we will soon see that manufacturers in countries such as Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore will have a deeper understanding of the benefits and importance of automation in their drive to stay cost-competitive and ensure higher productivity," says Mr Iversen.
"We can expect to see industrial robots moving into the era in which being lightweight and possessing flexible capabilities are the norm. These robots can collaborate with workers and are progressively easier to program."