Universal Robots: taking teamwork and productivity to the next level

Universal Robots’ UK sales manager, Mark Gray
Universal Robots’ UK sales manager, Mark Gray

For manufacturers, automation comes in many guises, but in terms of robots, there are two main flavours: industrial and collaborative (cobots). With the latter, suppliers don’t come much bigger than Danish organisation Universal Robots with more than 75,000 installations worldwide. Dave Tudor headed north to Sheffield and met with UK sales manager Mark Gray at the company’s brand spanking new Robotics Hub which officially opened its doors in June this year.  

Straight off the bat, let’s quickly compare industrial robots and cobots: industrial robots are fast, precise and capable of complex tasks. They can handle high payloads and exert high forces, but they’re not safe around people so need to be guarded. They can be hard to program and are often expensive and inflexible.

Cobots on the other hand are cost-effective, flexible, moveable, and occupy a small footprint. They’re comparatively simple to program and can work alongside humans in perfect industrial harmony so you don’t usually need cages. 

They do however have a limited payload and are generally slower than industrial robots so are best suited to simple, labour intensive, repetitive tasks. Which is best? Horses for courses.  

Driving automation

Universal Robots as a business, wants to create a world where people work with robots, not like robots – and with a 50% market share, it’s clearly doing something right.

The two main drivers behind the adoption of automation in the workplace are: a global skills shortage that blights not only the UK, but the whole world; and lacklustre productivity. With the latter, the UK is faring particularly badly – languishing at the lower depths of the G7 league table with no real growth since the financial crisis of 2008. Worse still, we have a government with no defined Industrial Strategy; but there’s no question that automation is an essential ingredient to our future prosperity.

Universal Robots’ new Robotics Hub in Sheffield offers extensive training facilities
Universal Robots’ new Robotics Hub in Sheffield offers extensive training facilities

“The skills gap is a particular concern,” Mark Gray affirms. “There are around 560,000 people over the age of 50 who have retired since COVID. That’s a lot of experience to lose. An application where we’ve had a lot of success in the UK is robotic welding. The average age of a welder in the UK is 55. It’s a highly skilled job, but there are some aspects of the process that are mundane and repetitive. It’s these tasks that are particularly suited to cobots.”

The Universal Robots cobot product portfolio is refreshingly uncluttered. There are five products to choose from, spanning a variety of different reaches, payloads and footprints. The bijou UR3e for example has a 500mm reach, 3kg payload, 128mm diameter footprint and weighs in at a lightweight 11.2kg.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have the new UR20 which is Universal Robots’ fastest, heaviest payload cobot. This features a 1,750mm reach with a 20kg payload, 245mm diameter footprint and a weight of 64kg. The UR20 is a new product – so new in fact that it hasn’t even materialised at the Sheffield hub yet. I’m reliably informed by Mark Gray that it’s on its way. The intermediate products in the range are the UR5e, the UR10e and the UR16e.

“The smaller products in the range like the UR3e is typically used for desktop applications like dispensing glue, screwdriving or putting components on a PCB,” Mr Gray reveals. “As we go up the range, we get into processes like machine tool loading/unloading, end of line palletising and driving heavy-duty bolts into engine blocks for example.”

The case for cobots

An important point to note is that Universal Robots is exclusively a cobot manufacturer. Mr Gray explains the rationale: “There are plenty of excellent industrial robot manufacturers in the marketplace and we have no desire to compete with them,” he says.

“But we believe that around two thirds of the repetitive, manual tasks carried out on the shopfloor can be automated with cobots. In particular, they’re ideal for businesses that have limited space, manufacturing a wide variety of parts in varying batch sizes. They’re a simple, easy to program, flexible automation solution that you can move from machine to machine, working alongside people. Through years of experience, we know when and where our cobots can be best deployed to optimise our customers’ processes.”

The Robotics Hub’s showroom area
The Robotics Hub’s showroom area

Machine tending is an ideal application for cobots. In fact, Mark Gray cites a particular example of a customer based in Mid-Wales manufacturing mountain bike pedals. The use of cobots has enabled true lights out operations for the business, providing a full 72 hours of unattended production. 

Some components will obviously be more complex than others and require more operations but the loading/unloading of small-to-medium sized components is tailor-made for cobot automation. And the productivity gains can be game changing, particularly for SMEs who may be strapped for space and resources.

“Our customer base in the UK is really diverse,” Mr Gray adds. “Clients are using our cobots for a plethora of different applications: welding, machine tending, inspection, surface finishing processes like grinding, sanding and deburring, and packaging and palletising – the list goes on.

“The education sector is a big growth area and we have our products in several universities and colleges as well as national innovation centres like the AMRC, AFRC and MTC. In Scotland, we’re working with a college network of which some have evolved to become specialist Automation Hubs, creating skillsets in students and apprentices that they can take out into industry.

He continues: “These hubs not only are involved in trialling and proving out automation processes and equipment for local businesses – they also get into schools to educate and inspire kids about pursuing a career in engineering and manufacturing – something that’s absolutely vital for the future.”

Simple software

These days, cutting-edge technology is as much about software as it is hardware and the challenge here for developers is blending power with a user-friendly, simple interface. Universal Robots has ticked both boxes. 

“Our software package is called Polyscope and it makes programming relatively simple,” Mr Gray says. “It features an intuitive graphical interface and is preloaded on the controller/teach pendant supplied with every cobot we sell. We run a comprehensive two-day training course for customers that teaches them everything they need to know, even if they’ve had no previous programming experience. 

“The best part however – and this is a real differentiator in the marketplace – is that Polyscope is totally free. You don’t have to worry about buying licenses to use the software and all updates are downloadable from our website.”

All robots need end effectors and accessories to make them usable in a practical environment and for this reason Universal Robots has developed its UR+ system.

“UR+ is essentially our version of an App Store,” Mr Gray states. “It’s accessible through our website and basically it’s a collection of 450 devices – grippers, effectors, screwdrivers, dispensing systems, welding systems, range extenders, lifts, soldering devices, grinding and deburring tools for example – from a variety of different manufacturers that we have personally tested for plug and play compatibility with our cobots. It’s updated regularly with new products.”

Nurturing networks

In the UK, Mr Gray and his team work closely with customers on a consultancy basis and projects vary considerably in terms of complexity: “All customers applications are different and it’s our job to establish where and how our cobot solutions can be best deployed,” he says. 

Universal Robots collaborates with a trusted team of integration partners and technical distributors to ensure customer installations are handled professionally and efficiently. And it’s a reciprocal arrangement because these partners, in turn, have their own respective customer bases that often require Universal Robots’ products and services. The level of engagement from each of the individual companies depends largely on the complexity of the application in hand.

Business is generated therefore via a variety of different permutations and channels, but a well-established and successful route to market for Universal Robots are the monthly roadshows the company hosts at venues all over the UK and Ireland. The business also enjoys close working relationships with a number of leading machine tool companies.  

And I must mention the new multifunctional Sheffield hub. It represents a milestone in the UK operation’s evolution, providing a clean, bright, impressive, modern facility for meetings, product demonstrations and training.

Overcoming challenges

With the aftermath of Brexit and its effects on the available labour market, an aging workforce, and well-documented skills and productivity crises, it’s tough for UK manufacturers at the moment. But automation is one of the few routes available that can really turn the tide.

“Companies that embrace technology and pivot will be the most successful moving forward and automation will play a key role,” Mr Gray asserts. “With that in mind, it’s essential for companies like Universal Robots to make the pathway towards automation as simple as possible for our customers.

“The evidence is clear: countries with higher robot densities have the highest productivity levels. The bottom line is that automation enables businesses to make products quicker, at less cost and with less waste. 

“There are around 76,000 engineering vacancies in the UK at the moment,” he concludes, “so any concerns that robots will take human jobs simply aren’t true. I can honestly say that with our own customers it’s not about losing staff at all – it’s about deploying robots to fill the operational gaps that the skills crisis has created.

“Cobots are really good – better than humans – at doing basic, repetitive, mundane, tedious tasks, freeing up skilled members of staff to do other things that they’re good at. It just takes a different mindset. Cobots don’t take jobs – they take tasks. Human skills are still the single biggest asset any manufacturing business has.”

Universal Robots
www.universal-robots.com

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