Judging by the number of people who visit this website to read about warehouse robots, the interest in the sector has grown dramatically over the past year.
Automated guided vehicles have been around for a long time, but they required markings and sometimes rails to be placed on the ground in order to inform of their route, and there was nothing autonomous about them.
They did their job of moving material from place to place within a facility effectively enough, but the new generation of machines are autonomous and allow for far greater flexibility.
But what has changed in recent months to explain this sudden surge in interest? Is it that the technology is mature enough now, tried and tested, proven; or is it that the customers are more willing to adopt them, and are prepared to change their operations to accommodate them?
In an exclusive interview with Robotics and Automation News, Thomas Visti, CEO of Mobile Industrial Robots, explains.
“I think it’s a combination of factors,” says Visti. “I think the architecture of our product fits good into the industry, which is also right now looking into automation of transport.
“I think this is the last big part that’s left in the industry that is yet be fully automated and they have a focus on that right now.
“The architecture, the performance and, of course, also the price is right now.
“I think in the past there have been challenges with classic automated guided vehicles because they were complex to install, very expensive, and not very flexible because it was driving along marks on the floor or a similar setup.
“So I think it’s a combination of several things that makes the timing right now.
“And honestly it’s like we are so much the first mover that we meet customers who actually have to first see the potential of the product after they have tested it.”
Visti tells the story of his visit to the Ford facility in Valencia, a massive facility with around 7,000 employees. He says the Ford CEO called him and told him that they had acquired the MiR robots through a distributor and even though it had only been two weeks since the facility started testing the MiR robots, “all my managers around the facility have started talking about your product”.
Visti says he was taken on a trip around the facility and the CEO told him, “Thomas, two weeks ago, we hadn’t thought about automation with robots – now we are potentially going to buy 500 to a thousand units”.
Visti surmises that: “It’s about learning the customer’s business and the possible applications of the technology in their operation. It’s really a new market.”
Laying the foundations first
One of the interesting things about Mobile Industrial Robots is its business approach. The company has spent a lot of time setting up offices all over the world and building relationships with integration partners.
This process has resulted in the creation of a support network which customers can rely on for whatever their needs are on an ongoing basis.
And laying this foundation has taken precedence over directly marketing and selling the robots, not that that has been neglected.
This strategy of creating a sort of ecosystem is similar to two other examples of a new product launched by massive multinationals: one was Apple, when it launched the iPhone; and the other is Sony, when it launched the PlayStation.
In both instances, the companies spent what seemed like an inordinate amount of time building the environment within which their product would eventually thrive.
In Apple’s case, it built a lot of apps itself and worked with developers who built even more apps, so the iPhone would not just end being a pretty looking gadget with powerful computational and graphics capabilities that it had no particular use for.
Similarly, Sony built a lot of games for PlayStation and worked with developers who did the same, so by the time the console came out, it had many feature-rich ready to be played.
It seems obvious to do that now, but many similar devices have failed because the company neglected, or was unable, to build an ecosystem within which it could survive.
Perhaps appropriately, Apple is one of the companies which is using MiR robots in its warehouses, but so too are many others around the world.
“We sell our robots in most of the world – I think 40 countries to date, through 130 distributors,” says Visti.
“We have offices in San Diego, New York, Shanghai, Singapore, Barcelona, and Dortmund. Our headquarters are here in Denmark, where we also have our research and development and production as well.”
MiR says it has so far sold more than 1,000 units of its warehouse robots, and expects to double that number by the end of this year.
“Our main customers are the global manufacturers – so, industrial customers, multinational companies – like Honeywell, Flextronics, and automotive manufacturers, and Tier 1 suppliers.
“I think one of the reasons why we are successful is that the timing is right now. The big companies are ready to do automation with mobile robots – automation of internal transport.
“We see that the big companies are the first movers right now and we have a product that fits pretty good into industrial companies.
“And we can support them globally also – we have offices and distributors around the world.
“We have a lot focus on flexibility, and how we give the customer that flexibility. And one of the main reasons is, of course, is to implement robotics in a collaborative way.
“Collaborative, in our world, also means that the robot is extremely easy to program.
“Our goal is that the end customer should be able to program the robot themselves or perform at least up to 80 per cent of the installation, but also that the robot is safe and can work safely around people – this is the main focus we have and I think it fits pretty good into the Industry 4.0 environment.”
Visti acknowledges that the priority in the past year has been to create a network for the business to grow into and with.
“Our company is pretty young still,” he says. “It was founded back in 2013, and we first introduced our robots commercially in 2015, when we were actually only three employees, and then we signed our first distributors and found our first customers.
“But honestly, the first year was mainly to sign up distributors and get that distribution network so that our customers can be supplied our product and supported.
“Then, in 2016, which was our second commercial year, we saw a development where the customers would start buying one or two units, some of them three or four units, but mainly one or two – for testing.
“Now customers would start buying a fleet of our robots, so 10 or 15 units. And we’re also seeing some of the multinational companies taking us with them from one country to another country, and from one site to another site.
“For example, Visteon started with automating using our robots in Portugal, and then afterwards they installed them in five or six other countries around the world.
“We’ve been pretty lucky also that the customers approve of our product and like our product, and took them, along with us, to a new country in a new facility.
“Since we have the setup also with our partners worldwide, we were able to support them from the very beginning.”
MiR now has more than 50 employees and is looking to hire another 20.
Growth on a universal scale
It’s probably safe to say that the vast majority of warehouses today do not have robots in them. Most will have some form of automation, but not robotics, and for Visti, the two things are worlds apart.
“Honestly, it’s old and new technology – it’s no comparison,” he says. “Okay, AGVs transports material but they are not similar to autonomous robots, if you ask me.”
While some may require AGVs and conveyors and similar automated technologies which have been established for decades, more than half all warehouses around the world — at a guess — could probably make efficiency and productivity gains using robots.
Visti is reluctant to guess how many warehouses or what percentage of them do not have robots. “I think it’s extremely difficult to say because it’s a market that has not been analysed in that way,” he says.
“But we can say is that you need to have a certain size in terms of square metres of facility before it makes sense to bring in automated or autonomous transport.
“I don’t think you’ll see small companies, a machine shop, for example, installing mobile robots.
“But I have a background from Universal Robots, and what I can see is that customers start buying fleets of robots a lot faster than when I started at the company.
“And it seems that it’s the big companies that are the first movers right now. It is bigger fleets of robots. And the potential is enormous, but I would hesitate to put a percentage or a number on it.
“For sure, it could be the same level as the collaborative robot arms that Universal Robots supplies, so I think the potential out there is enormous.
“I haven’t seen a reaction like this in the market like this before, so I think it will be the big companies that lead the way, and then we will see medium-sized companies following in a year or two.
“But first, the big companies will gain the experience and then the medium-sized companies will follow afterwards.”
Universal Robots has been around for a few years and in the last couple of years has seen a trememndous increase in business, reaching 25,000 units sold.
Not altogether coincidentally, partly because both Universal and MiR are Danish-origin companies, Visti’s background includes many years at a senior level at Universal Robots.
He calls Universal Robots’ new milestone a “fantastic achievement”, and adds: “I was responsible for sales alone in 2009 and we sold 37 robots in the full year in 2009. So it’s been a fantastic journey, and seeing now they’ve sold 25,000 units is fantastic.
“There’s no doubt that Universal Robots is now the market leader and very successful.
“You have to remember that this is a few robots – today they have the UR 3, 5 and and 10. It’s not a lot of payload either, so with three robots, that’s fantastic, and I think it’s changed the world about how people do automation.”
Visti makes the point that it’s actually quite challenging when you are a new company to resist the temptation to build custom solutions for larger companies.
A customer may like the robots you produce but want something particular for themselves. Often that’s achievable, but the risk is that you end up being a different type of company.
Going back to Apple example, and the Universal Robots example, such companies have a relatively limited range of products. Both thes companies are capable of adding to their product line and building custom solutions, but Visti believes it’s better to do a limited range of products extremely well rather than do a lot of things not so well.
“When I look into the investments that I’ve done in Universal Robots, in MiR and in general, I think looking into the fundings that are world-wide, it’s peanuts compared to that.
“But we have been able to do a lot of a little because we have been good at focusing and saying ok we want to be very good at collaborative robot arms up to 10 kg, and not focus a lot of other stuff and the same with mobile robots.
“Ok, it’s just a few mobile robots, and it’s focused on the manufacturing industry and be able to say ‘No’ when big companies say can you develop this big version for our production, we say ‘No it’s the same for all’.
“In the beginning that’s very difficult, to say no to big companies when they are offering you an order of five or 10 pieces – in the beginning, that’s a lot.
“So I think that is my learning.
“We have been good at focusing, and being able to actually to say no at the beginning.
“So, instead of being half-good at making 20 robots, we focus on two and then we could say there might be a specific version for logistics, or hospitals or whatever, but here we are really good, and we keep focus.
“I tried to meet customer demand – big companies when they ask for custom versions. And being able to say ‘no’ can be a challenge.
“But what actually happens is that improve your product, they accept that you have a good product, and start buying it later on.”
Specialised and focused
Visti speculates that the ability to focus and specialise on specific things is probably a characteristic of the Danish robotics industry. That’s certainly true if one was to judge by Universal Robots and MiR.
And the other drive is to make everything easy to install and learn to use by themselves, says Visti, who explains that the two warehouse robots MiR supplies are as easy as playing a computer game.
“It’s similar to a computer game or doing simple things,“ he says. “Everything should be made as simple as possible. So, when you drive or move our robot, it’s a joystick that you move.
“So it’s actually pretty easy for understanding, and also programming. We tried to convert all the things you do with your smartphone or tablet, so when you navigate around, it’s similar to what you have use when you visit a web page or whatever it is.
“So we really try to make it easy for the end customer so they can recognise he’s used to do.”
He conjures up an amusing image of a smartphone user being followed around bz an engineer who is there to help use the device and perhaps sort out any problems.
“If you get an iPhone, they don’t follow with two engineers to set it up and get it working — it’s just something you learn yourself.
“I think we can go pretty close that also with robots. I think there will be some things that are too difficult, but I think 80 to 90 per cent can be done by the end user, and that will change a lot of the flexibility for our customers.”
Another key issue — although one that is in the domain of the customer — is what Visti calls “flexibility”, by which he means flexibility of a warehouse’s operation, which often means making a choice between installing fixed infrastructure, such as conveyor systems, or mobile robots.
“It’s about giving companies flexibility, and conveyors don’t give companies flexibility,” says Visti. “And I think that if a company wants to change their production setup, as they actually do pretty often today, then they demand flexibility, and with an autonomous mobile robot, you can have that.
“You can decide if you want the robot to go left around the building one day and right the next day, you can do that as long as the setup has easy – and I think that’s the important part of that also.
“I think that we see that with conveyors bands, it’s actually a consideration that they do before they build a conveyor band, to say, ‘Okay, should we choose conveyors or mobile platform?’
“We see actually some of the companies right now going from line production to more cell production. So they have semi-manufacturing cells to give them that flexibility.
“If you need to have more capability on your line, then you can add an extra cell, and you can still keep your production running.
“So here you then have mobile robots moving parts between the lines.
“I think the cell production is increasing, and we see it also for the big companies, because it’s a lot easier to copy a cell that is functional, that works.”