Kim Povlsen joined Universal Robots (UR) as its president in March 2021, just as the world started to come to grips with a new, more virulent strain of COVID-19. Food & Drink Business caught up with Povlsen to talk about his experience so far.
1. You joined UR in March, what have been the highlights and challenges of this year? What was unexpected both good and bad?
The highlight has been getting to know the talented employees at Universal Robots and working with our leadership team to create the strategy for the coming years. As an innovative robotics company which seeks to continuously redefine automation, we are big on talent.
We work closely with the local university’s engineering department but also recruit people with great potential from all over the world - so there are a lot of brains and we are never short of good ideas.
As a company we have chosen to empower our product teams to experiment and find the most pressing customer problems to solve. I’m proud of this approach and one of the things I’ve set out to do from the start is to retain the spirit of a start-up, even though we are a strong global company now with over 800 employees.
I think the company faces challenges common to rapidly growing companies. We know that automation can help manufacturing businesses overcome some of their biggest obstacles, such as workforce and skills shortages. We also know that there are millions of people working in jobs with automatable tasks.
The challenge of scaling to reach the projected market demand is an exciting thing to take on.
Our cobots are being used for an ever-larger number of applications and in a wide range of industries. We have a job to do in spreading awareness of the benefits of collaborative robots and then working with our partners to meet that demand.
2. What differentiates Asia-Pacific and trends?
One of the very interesting aspects of Asia-Pacific (APAC) is the diversity. The region includes demographically diverse countries and a wide range of consumer requirements. My personal opinion is that this has led to the region being very agile and resilient to changing conditions. Most companies don’t have the luxury of machines pumping out the same product year in year out. This has ensured that innovation and flexibility are top of mind in this region. It’s a market that requires machines to be able to handle a variety of tasks.
The region has been resilient, and the COVID-19 pandemic has created a drive towards further innovation. Collaborative automation has helped with social distancing and ultimately keeping people employed and economies running. Automation is being used to solve challenges in this region. With a high percentage of migrant workers, we are finding that people right now are questioning the type of work that should be done by humans.
Our vision at Universal Robots is a world where people work with robots, not like robots. We should be calling time on people doing dangerous and repetitive work when there is such an obvious alternative which can also help businesses to become more productive.
An aging workforce and the shift in career choices by young people has brought about its fair share of challenges but automation is helping to bridge the gap.
There is also a greater need to combat supply chain challenges. Manufacturers are now encouraged to analyze their production processes and rethink their supply chain. Bringing production closer to home or in many cases re-shoring is helping to increase resilience in the manufacturing sector.
There is a strong appetite for automation locally, with many companies already in the process of updating their technology to compensate for having fewer people in the factory during the pandemic.
As we move out of COVID-19, companies in the APAC region are realizing that they can now compete with the likes of China thanks to a stable electricity grid combined with the small footprint, flexibility and rapid deployment of cobots. Take Singapore for example – one of the highest users of robots in the world and a country on a mission to become self-sufficient.
The reality is that there are millions of tasks out there that can and should be automated, so there is still a huge opportunity ahead of us!
3. What trends are you seeing for the food and beverage manufacturing sector – where is there greater uptake, or technological innovation?
Countries are becoming more self-sufficient – particularly in terms of food (and food security). Automation is being used in food and beverage plants across the region to ensure that local production can be sustained. One company in Singapore recently carried out an integration where they analyzed how to optimise the pollination of strawberry plants.
In the past, the workers would look at the plants to determine how hard a fan should blow. In this case, the company couldn’t get migrant labor due to the pandemic. So together with UR’s partner and some sophisticated AI they deployed cobots to the challenge. The outcome was better than expected - the task of pollination was not just completed but optimized. Production output was increased and damage to plant stock eliminated. This is a great example of how COVID-19 has accelerated innovation in the food and beverage industry.
Australia produces enough food for 75 million people with some referring to us as “Asia’s food bowl” - you can imagine the huge volume of automation opportunities Australia has in food and beverage production alone. If we could deploy cobot automation to them it would deliver a significant competitive advantage to us.