Exclusive interview with Neil Dueweke, general manager, automotive new domestic and automotive components group, Fanuc America
Industrial robotics and automation is a complex area for a someone with no background in engineering or any related disciplines.
Which is why it’s always interesting to ask for the observations of experts who work within the sector.
Fanuc has a greater number of industrial robots installed worldwide than any other company – some 400,000 at last count. By that measure, it’s the biggest industrial robot company in the world.
And as Neil Dueweke (main picture), general manager, automotive new domestic and automotive components group, Fanuc America, explains in this exclusive interview with Robotics and Automation News, installation is by no means the end of the relationship with a customer.
Dueweke mainly operates within Fanuc’s North American and South American regions, but his decades of experience in the mechatronics business in general, and his 11 years at Fanuc in particular, means that he has deep knowledge of the industrial world at large, as well as the robotics technology on the microelectronics scale.
He describes market trends which are ongoing globally in the industry now, and provides insights into technology trends which will inevitably transform the machines that themselves transformed manufacturing, and now logistics and an increasing number of other sectors.
The narrow path
Fanuc was established almost 60 years ago. Today, it employs 5,500 people worldwide, and its revenues total more than $6 billion a year.
Like many of its competitors, Fanuc has been doing well in China recently, increasing sales across all its product categories.
And, while some companies may be tempted use this success to diversify into new and unfamiliar business categories – such as home robots or something – Dueweke says that the industrial automation and robotics sector is where Fanuc is very likely to stay.
Fanuc started out selling computer-numerical control units, which are essentially computers which control machines, and servo motors, which are components within automation systems. And the company’s technological product range has grown from there – organically, as some might say.
This type of specialisation is probably the proverbial secret to the company’s success.
“Fanuc’s origins are in the CNC and servo motor technologies, and robots are a derivative of those core technologies,” says Dueweke.
“Our former chairman’s philosophy was, ‘Walk the narrow path’.
“What he meant by that is, stick to what you know, which is industrial automation, and don’t get diverted by other applications outside of industrial applications.
“This will allow you to listen better to customers, and come up with better products that meet their needs the best needs.
“That’s the philosophy that we’ve been using for almost 40 years now.
“The other thing about Fanuc is that we are very, very conservative in terms of the tremendous amount of testing we do on our products, and we don’t release a product until we know it’s a very, very reliable product.
“So we can turn it over to a customer, and that customer can use that tool, that robot, for 20, 30, 40 years or more.
“For example, in North America, the oldest known Fanuc robot operating today was installed in 1981. We at Fanuc still support that customer with his robot – 36 years or so later.
“That’s a commitment that we’ll make to you and to every customer, that as long as you use our product, we will support it with spare parts, training, engineering support, and whatever you need.
“So, all those elements have helped to make us number one globally.
“We are very relentless in gaining market share. We are very focused on that. It’s the subject of management meetings every week.
“And that focus is what’s allowed us to be successful.”
Food for robotic thought
As you might expect, Fanuc robots are widely used in the automotive trade – both within what are called original equipment manufacturers, which refers to companies like General Motors, for example, and their suppliers, which tend to be divided into “tiers”, with tier-one suppliers directly selling parts to the GMs of the world, and tier-two companies supplying to tier-ones and so on.
In aggregate, the automotive sector buys more industrial robots than any other sector. According to the International Federation of Robotics, one in every two robots – half all units sold.
But, along with increased understanding of robots and their technological innovations and affordability, they are being bought in increasing numbers by the logistics sector, the electronics sector, the metal fabrication sector, as well as many others. Even the delicate cosmetics manufacturing sector is introducing robots in its production processes.
“Our customers are very diverse,” says Dueweke. “A lot of automotive, a lot of automotive OEMs, and also a tremendous amount of automotive tier companies.
“For example, and I’ll speak for the North American branch of Fanuc, we pride ourselves on being able to satisfy and support Korean automotive companies, Japanese automotive companies, German automotive companies, American automotive companies, Spanish automotive companies… you know, we have a very diverse of customers from an automotive perspective.
“But, quite frankly, some of the most important lessons we’ve learned about applying automation have come about by working with industries other than automotive.
“So, for example, the food industry. The food industry has taught us a lot about tracking food ‘parts’ – as we would call it – at very rapid speeds, and we’ve applied that learning back into the automotive and industrial market.”
If cosmetics products are delicate, lettuce could probably be described as super-fragile, and yet, 68 large, powerful industrial robots from Fanuc have been integrated into a Spanish farm company’s operation, processing approximately 550,000 heads of lettuce every day.
As Dueweke says, Fanuc robotics and automation systems can be found almost anywhere. “We’re in aerospace, automotive, food industry, the furniture business… almost any industry – cosmetics – almost any industry that, from an industrial or consumer point of view can use automation, we’re somehow involved from a robotics perspective.”
In terms of the solutions it provides, Fanuc’s business is divided into three areas, says Dueweke. “There are three main sectors. There’s the CNC area, which is number one in terms of volume. A close second is the robotics area, and that’s probably growing the fastest. And the third is specialist machines, such as small cutting machines, like RoboDrill, RoboShafts, which is a plastics machine… that’s kind of the third leg of the stool.”
Some people find trend-spotting mysterious. How does one know what is going to happen in the future? It’s almost like astrology or something.
But sometimes, predictions are essentially the result of collating vast amounts of data and deciding what is likely to happen, given what’s been happening in the recent past.
That probably sounds more complicated than it needs to be, but someone like Dueweke is able to provide insights into the trends that are already occurring – ones that perhaps people can see if they look – as well as the trends that most people, especially outside the industry, may not see.
“It’s an exciting time because what you have is kind of a confluence of several trends going on at once,” says Dueweke.
“One is definitely collaborative robots. So, customers don’t want their robots behind cages. They want to have them more accessible, where the human operator can interact with the robot to get the preferred production out.
“So that’s definitely one trend.
“But just as important, if not bigger, is the whole idea of connecting the industrial production – I’ll say ‘stations’, meaning all those sensors and devices – to the internet in a way that enables you to prevent and predict downtime so that the efficiency of your operation improves to a much higher level.
“You know, they call it ‘industrial internet’ or ‘industry 4.0’ – lots of terminologies – but that is a very, very important method through which manufacturers over the next 10 to 15 years are going to improve their efficiency.
“All of these sensors, including the ones in robots, are going to be connected, so you’ll be able to determine, for example, the health of all your robots in your plant, and you’ll be able to – as a manufacturing specialist – to say, ‘Oh, I was just notified by Fanuc that one of my robots has a certain trend and looks like it could break down in about a week’.
“And then you will be able to automatically order a replacement part and, at your determination, you will be able to replace that part on that robot and get it back moving to 100 per cent capability.
“That’s as opposed to being surprised when the robot breaks down, and then all kinds of issues and pressure to get the robot up and running again.
“So that’s a clear second trend, and I’d say those are the two predominant ones.
“But thirdly, I think robots are going to get more and more capable in terms of sensing the environment around them. Robots are going to become much more mobile on a routine basis.
“So, with the robot itself, gradually, you may have a line of fixed, stationary, but also you may have an equal complement of mobile robots that will be on these mobile platforms, and they’ll move around your facility, working at different stations, almost like humans did in the past.
“I think that’s also a very important trend for the next five to 10 years. You can see it all over the industry.”
For the predictive analytics segment, Fanuc has developed something called “Field”, which is short for Fanuc Intelligent Edge Link and Drive.
As well as basic data analytics, Fanuc says its Field system features deep learning capabilities.
As Dueweke implies, these sensor-based, machine-monitoring and analytics systems are a huge growth area for the industrial sector, which previously used machines that were isolated from each other and the internet, losing all the valuable data that they are now increasingly providing.
Software vs hardware
Machine-monitoring systems such as Field are growing in importance for both the companies which buy the solutions as well as those who provide them.
The buyers benefit from being able to make their operations more visible and efficient, thereby saving money, and the sellers obviously benefit from selling the system to the buyers in the first place, and may also provide ongoing services built on their platforms.
Another well-known of these industrial internet of things platforms is Predix, from GE Digital, which now generates revenues of more than $4 billion a year. Another is MindSphere, from Siemens, which says 30 million devices are connected to its platform.
It’s big business and getting bigger as software becomes more and more important to running and industrial operation.
But while there is clearly a lot of innovation happening in software, with GE Digital doing a deal with Apple to take its Predix apps to iPhones and iPads, it might be forgotten or perhaps underestimated that the hardware, too, could see a lot of changes and improvements.
Dueweke mentions Moore’s Law as a background to suggest that the large computers currently used in direct connection with a robotic arm could shrink in size and be integrated into the robot itself.
“One of the things that Fanuc is known for is very efficient usage of the electrical componentry that makes up the control of a robot,” says Dueweke.
“That box over there, the robot controller, with a wire or cable leading to the robot? What you’re going to start seeing routinely – not just for small robots, but for bigger robots as well – is that all the electronics is going to be miniaturised, and there’s not going to be a separate box.
“It’s going to be placed in the body of the robot. That’s absolutely going to happen because the miniaturisation of electrical components is relentless. I mean, if you think of Moore’s Law and what that says, all that is coming together, so a box that may be this big [almost as large as a server rack] today, is going to be this big [the size of a small desktop computer] within three years.
“And all that power is going to be housed within the robot itself.
“The other thing that will happen is that a lot of robots now are made out of cast material – very hard, very durable. I think you’re going to see a trend, like with consumer products, where you’re going to see a lot more composite materials, and a lot more use of plastics.
“And what does that do for you? It makes maybe a 300-pound robot, in terms of weight, 125 pounds. So if it’s 125 pounds, you may not need as large a motor, so you can downsize the motor and still get the same capability.
“That, clearly, is also happening.
“You’ll also have lower costs overall – robots all become more energy-efficient, and it would be easier to buy a less expensive robot.”
Manufacturing jobs in the US
Most people know that robots play a large part in manufacturing, so it follows that many might also think the current US administration of President Donald Trump may not be able to create a great many jobs even if succeeds in expanding the country’s manufacturing base.
The US is obviously still one of the largest manufacturing nations in the world – some say it’s ahead of China and the biggest – but an increase in manufacturing companies or activities in the US would probably mostly add more robots to the workforce, rather than people.
This would not be a bad thing, obviously, but an interesting dilemma for the administration to deal with may be the prospect of manufacturers in the US locating their control rooms in the country, with their IIoT platforms monitoring hundreds if not thousands of machines and people across the world – none of which has to be in the US.
Meaning, the situation in terms of the number of jobs created might not change much, although the US industrial software business and related computer networks and systems might be a big winner.
And, as Dueweke says, robotics and automation systems, monitored through industrial internet platforms and other software, free up companies to locate their factories anywhere in the world.
And if artificial intelligence systems were able to manage those factories and people – which they are – the entire world will be automated and run by robots, with humans no longer required.
“In my opinion, what robotics and automation will do is set a level playing field – I don’t care whether you’re in China, America, Mexico, Malaysia – everyone is going to be on a level playing field,” says Dueweke.
“But the winners are going to be the companies that enable the most efficient use of automation – the ones which use the data they get from their operations, and are able to best use that data for the improvement of their products and the efficiency of their operations.
“Those are going to be the winners.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a debate in 25 years about, like someone saying, ‘Well, I’m locating my plant in China, or Malaysia, or Vietnam, because I get cheap labour’.
“So I think it’s really important not to focus on the labour element because there’s going to be people involved in running the plant, but they’re going to be more supervisory.
“And that’s going to be whether the plant is in Vietnam or Chicago, Illinois. There isn’t going to be a difference.
“The companies which have the best automation are going to be the ones who are ultimately going to win.”
Moreover, argues Dueweke, there could be risks ahead for US manufacturing, because whatever areas it currently leads in may be ones in which other countries can catch up eventually.
“From a purely software perspective, yes, America may be leading, and maybe I’m more paranoid than most Americans, but I believe that we’re at a very dangerous point where you have Japanese, German and Chinese robot companies with growing power and expertise… I mean, how many American robot companies do you know?”
I don’t know anything.
“At Fanuc America, of course, we employ a lot of Americans, but the fact remains that all the components that make robots come from all over the world.
“We may have a software advantage in America today, but I’m not sure that’s going to be there 10 years from now.
“I just saw a statistic that said of all the Chinese students that come to America for education and training, 82 per cent go back to China.
“So, I’m paranoid, as an American. We may be in the lead now – and in some of the sub-categories, clearly we are – but I’m not certain at all that we’re going to be there 10 years from now.
“So I’m in favour of a lot more investment by government or by the private sector into robotics in America, at all levels. I truly believe that, for us, America… for us to stay competitive, we’ve got to up our game big time.”
Generally, in a situation where a country or company is in the lead, the worry that it has is that its competitors will simply copy its products and methods and all the money it invested in research and development will benefit others.
Nowadays, with increasing numbers of tech companies taking each other to court, and with China becoming more integrated into the global intellectual property framework, those worries are, perhaps, reduced somewhat.
But the fact remains that innovative companies will always have a lot of companies copying them in some way. Flattering it may be, but maybe not as profitable as you might want it to be.
However, what choice is there but to remain innovative and create products and processes that others would find difficult if not impossible to recreate.
And it’s a good time now to think about that because there are so many huge markets opening up, even within one sector – automotive.
More new cars are integrating computer technology for autonomous functions – currently generally referred to as advanced driver assistance systems – and the electric vehicle may arrive far sooner than some might expect.
“In automotive, we’ve seen already tremendous change,” says Dueweke.
“Most conventional vehicles have been put together in a body shop using all metal components, hundreds of metal components, typically put together using spot welding – over 4,000 spot welds, making up what’s called a body-in-white.
“We are working with one electric car maker today, and their body shop has zero spot welding.
“It is a combination of glueing, something called flow drill screwing, it’s riveting, it’s clinching… it’s like everything but the most predominant joining technology that is used across all of the automotive industry – namely, spot welding.
“So here’s one electric car manufacturer already deciding to go away – 100 per cent – from the number-one joining technology that’s been used for the last 80 years.
“I think that’s phenomenal.”
And although it may seem far out into the future – or just far out – the commercialisation of space might also happen.
With companies like SpaceX and others proving their technologies and with organisations such as the European Space Agency openly planning to build a tourist resort on the moon, who knows what the next few decades hold?
Certainly there have been robotic arms in use on spacecraft such as the International Space Station for decades, which also has a 3D printer from a company called Made in Space, and spacecraft of all types have some sort of robotic arm attached and the vessels or vehicles themselves are capable of operating largely on their own.
But film fan Dueweke suggests some caution before giving space-age technologies and artificial intelligence systems too much autonomy.
“I’m the sort of person who, when I saw the original Terminator movie 20 years ago or whatever, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, I said, ‘Unfortunately, that’s going to happen’. I truly do believe that.
“So, space, and having more robots in space, for sure, that’s going to happen.
“That’s not industrial, but who knows, maybe we will build some sort of production facility up in space, using Fanuc space robots.
“It’s probably going to be past my time, but I can see that as a way for us to enter that area.”