Industrial Robotics Leader Diversifying into Service Robotics: A Conversation with Kevin Kozuscek
KUKA Robotics is the North American subsidiary of KUKA Roboter GmbH, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of industrial robots and other robotic technology. KUKA built its first industrial robot in 1977 and now has 80,000 robots installed in the field using its PC-based controller. The company offers a range of advanced design robots, covering all common payload categories, from 3 kg to 1,000 kg.
Here are the primary offerings of KUKA Robotics:
Industrial Robots – The robot range includes palletizers, gantry robots, cleanroom robots, robots made of stainless steel; heat-resistant robots, welding robots and Selective Compliant Assembly Robot Arm (SCARA) robots used in assembly operations, such as for printed circuit boards.
Controllers – PC-based controllers include KUKA Motion Control and KUKA Robot Controller.
Software – KUKA’s range of software products includes application packages, planning, simulation, robot control, external communiation, control and observe, real-time technology, conveyer control, security updates and remote control.
Robot Systems – Special-purpose robots include Occubot, a seat-testing dummy; Robocoast, a passenger-carrying robot for roller coasters and Wash-Down-Robot, a robotic device designed for use in areas requiring strict hygiene such as food processing.
KUKA Robotics Director of Marketing Kevin Kozuszek recently took some time to answer some questions about the company from John Desmond, Robotics Trends’ contributing editor. ()
Robotics Trends (RT): KUKA Robotics industrial robots date from 1977 and most commonly have been used in factories, but also later in hospitals and then in amusement parks. Can you comment on the formation and evolution of KUKA Robotics as a company?
(Kevin Kozuszek (KK): KUKA is over 100 years old. The company is based in Germany outside Munich. KUKA has been a manufacturing company since the beginning, with products including German trash trucks dating to the 1930s. In the 1970s, KUKA developed a robotics branch out of Germany, which has evolved into a global company today. The parent company is KUKA Robotics; the US arm, which is a subsidiary, was founded in 1994.
(RT): How would you describe your company to someone who has no idea what KUKA Robotics does?
(KK): KUKA Robotics is a technology company focusing on industrial robots, the kind you see building cars for instance. Today we have diversified from automobile manufacturing to markets including healthcare and entertainment.
(RT): Who is the typical KUKA Robotics customer?
(KK): Like all industrial robotics companies, there are two sides to the business, the automotive and general industry side. In the late 1970s, major auto manufacturers including GM and Mercedes Benz, started to accept robotics technology on the manufacturing lines. That business grew steadily through the late 1980s and into the 1990s, when robot manufacturers such as KUKA saw the need to diversify. So we started building applications for general industry markets such as packaging, material handing, welding, healthcare and entertainment. So our end customer varies by industry, but we are primarily selling to manufacturers.
(RT): Can you name some ‘premier accounts’—companies with name and brand recognition that are using KUKA products?
(KK): Our brand accounts include GM, BMW, Mercedes, Audi and Volkswagen on the automotive side, to major manufacturers outside automotive in food processing, such as Anheuser Busch, and plastics, such as Plastic Omnium.
(RT): Does KUKA Robotics have a particular vertical market segment where it is very strong? What about other vertical market segments where you feel Industrial Automation robot products and services would add real value?
(KK): Half of what we do is in the automotive industry and the other half is general industry, and subsets of that would be packaging, material handing, food processing, plastics manufacturing, and the medical industry and working with companies such as Accuray with their CyberKnife system (the CyberKnife® Robotic Radiosurgery System).
(RT): It appears that your PC-based controller technology is central to many of your platform products. Can you describe the advantages of the PC-based controller and how it operates?
(KK): The PC-based controller is the hallmark of the KUKA robot. It does not need a propriety software architecture, so it can interface directly to other industry components. That direct communication also helps the end user to easily operate and manage a KUKA robot, because they are not trying to write in lines of unfamiliar code. We work with WSYWIG graphical user interfaces.
(RT): KUKA Robotics offers a number of platform products, but I am also interested in the software that the company offers. Can you describe the software that drives the KUKA robot products?
(KK): Our software is industry application specific. One of the trends in industrial robotics is to have application software specifically suited for the industry. So if you are doing packaging, we have a software suite called KUKA.Pallet which is a very straightforward, easy-to-use package for use by operators at the end of the packaging line. And we have applications for plastics, welding and other industries.
(RT): Can you give me an idea of how your robots are priced?
(KK): Prices range from $20,000 to $200,000, depending on size, payload and capacity and a number of variables.
(RT): This year KUKA demonstrated a robot that represents a transition to a more service-oriented robot, based on evolution of technology that enables the robot to sense its human co-workers and react cautiously. Can you comment on this evolution in service robotics and KUKA’s plans in this area?
(KK): One thing we are seeing as an industry is the greater interaction between humans and robots, and the growth of what is becoming known as the service robotics industry. So today when you walk into a facility that uses robots, you might think of an industrial robot like we offer, or Rosie from the Jetsons, or the Rumba vacuuming robot. The big difference between an industrial robot and one that operates in your home, is how closely the robot operates with humans. That interaction where people can use robots directly is really the next step. The International Federation of Robotics sees that the service robotics industry can become a $50 billion industry by 2025. To get there will take a series of steps to make sure the robot is safe both physically and on the software side, and to make sure the applications are what end user want.
(RT): Can you describe your new robot in this area?
(KK): KUKA has developed a prototype service robot which has a 14 kilogram payload capacity, and is not made of cast aluminum like our other robots, but it’s made with composite plastic so it’s very light. But it has a power to weight ratio of one, which is very strong for a robot. It’s designed to show that you can sit next to a robot and have the robot sense that you are there and yield if you bump into it. If you think of an industrial robot, heaven forbid if it got through its safety barriers. This robot is smaller and can be used in the home. We are testing out different software and hardware applications for how to best utilize this service robot.
(RT): How far along are you in the development of these service robots?
(KK): The lightweight robot prototype is what we are showing publicly. It will take a series of steps to solve the technical challenges. We work with universities such as George Tech, and we work with their RoboCup event, where they are working on the problem of how a robot senses someone or somebody in the room, and how does the robot move autonomously, since the bulk of industrial robots are bolted to the floor. So how can we get them to move and still have the ability to be stable, to pick things up and perform tasks. So you can think about what robots might look like in the future if you think of the Jetsons, but we expect robots to take new forms we have not even imagined yet.
(RT): Are you investing in this area?
(KK): KUKA invests heavily in R&D. It is roughly 10% of our revenue. KUKA is a technology company first and foremost, but it more than just robots and software that dives our customers. We need to be constantly querying our customers to find the new applications for robots. Another new IFR study said that only 5% to 10% of all possible robot applications have been realized to date. So it’s a wide and growing market.
(RT): Geographically for KUKA in the U.S., where will this growth occur?
(KK): There is not one geographic base for it. The common characteristics of good locations include a university-driven research program, such as Georgia Tech, and others on the East Coast. In the Midwest, we are looking for ways to education people coming out of trade schools, as well as in universities, about the ways that robots can be used today. We believe that it will be young people that will be the users and operators who will help move us move the industry forward.
(RT): Do you see any other fundamental market shifts coming for Industrial Automation robotics? More ubiquity, more commercialization, anything else> Also, what is causing these shifts?
(KK): Service robotics is probably the biggest shift.
(RT): Who do you view as your direct competitors?
(KK): In industrial robotics, Fanuc, Motoman and ABB are our three biggest competitors.
(RT): What can you tell us about the future of Industrial Automation robots? Can you comment on KUKA Robotics products that we might see in the future?
(KK): In industrial robots, you will see a transition of a cyclical nature in the development of robots, where for instance robot arms, the physical tools, are becoming more and more capable. The software is being written which makes the robot arms more useful and have potential. As software develops it will reach a point where it will outstrip the capabilities of the robot arm. So then you have to go into new development so the robot arm can match what the software is doing. So it’s a growing trend towards more accurate, faster and stronger industrial robots.
(RT): Which one leads, the software or the hardware?
(KK): It’s a chicken or the egg kind of thing. The robot is only as smart as the software, but the software can only execute if the arm is physically able to do so.
(RT): Any advice for young people interested in robotics?
(KK): There are many programs, such as First Robotics and Lego League, where students can learn basic robot techniques and about what robots can do. When you get to the university level, there are robotics programs at a number of schools and different concentrations, such as pneumatics or software. The good thing about robotics is that it is not a one size fits all industry. If you are stronger in math or engineering or the software side, you go in one direction. If you are more hands on, you might gravitate towards the implementation or operations side.