Q&A with KUKA Robotics: Approaching uncertainty in the global economy
Neil Mead has recently been appointed to the position of Head of Regional Marketing EMEA, LATAM & India, KUKA Robotics. Karen Mascarenhas met with him to see how this leading automation company is approaching a time of flux in geopolitics and uncertainty in the global economy.
KUKA with its headquarters in Augsburg, Germany has an excellent reputation for robotics and factory automation so an overview of the company and its origins would be a good place to start this interview.
With 125 years’ experience, around 14,000 employees operating from 100 locations in 50 countries, and with annual sales of 3.3 billion Euros, KUKA remains one of the world’s leading suppliers of intelligent automation solutions.
KUKA Robotics offers a comprehensive range of highly modular robots, covering all common payload categories, from 3kg to 1,000kg. KUKA robots are designed to meet all of today’s industrial automation requirements, such as minimised space, shorter cycle times and maximum availability in order to provide top process efficiency and low operating costs. Designed and built at our Augsburg HQ in Germany, and featuring the latest technology, KUKA robots are some of the highest quality, fastest, strongest and most precise available on the market.
Over two thirds of the KUKA robots installed in the field use the company’s open architecture PC-based controller, making KUKA the number one PC-controlled robot manufacturer in the world. KUKA controllers are also available for integration with other components within automation systems. Other products include SoftPLC, Remote Service, KUKA SIM simulation software, networking Services and a variety of dress packs.
In addition, KUKA’s System Partners – experts in their respective industries – offer key technologies that transform the KUKA robot into an application-specific solution. And the advanced KUKA College enables fast learning through flexible training programmes that simulate a variety of real-world applications. Plus, KUKA Robotics offers a 24-hour customer service hotline, as well as a range of engineering support services.
As a manufacturer of such a leading-edge robotics technology, an outline of its wide range of application areas would be of interest.
KUKA’s robot range extends from bench-tops and cobots to the heavy-duty KR 1000 TITAN, which can lift loads of up to 1,300kg. They are used in industries from automotive manufacturing, through to food and beverage handling and even space satellite construction as well as for many other advanced engineering applications. Key to KUKA’s success is how it delivers its broad range of solutions, either directly or through its approved System Partner integrator programme.
KUKA has been at the heart of robotics and automation in manufacturing since it launched FAMULUS, the world’s first six-axis industrial robot, in 1973. Recent additions include the KR QUANTEC robot family, KR IONTEC medium size robot series and the new LBR iisy collaborative robot range, which runs on the innovative iiQKA Linux based operating system.
Industrial robotic assembly lines, typically with a series of cells performing welding, joining and other repetitive tasks, are now a familiar sight. But automation has reached far beyond dirty, difficult, dangerous, routine, and repetitive tasks. They have now been joined by bespoke manufacturing, detailed finishing, advanced composite construction, packaging automation and more.
It is becoming as common to see a small, bench-mounted cobot, such as the new LBR iisy, working alongside a human, without a protective cage, as it is to see production lines made up of fully enclosed, heavy-duty welding, filling, and packing cells. The availability, suitability and falling costs of robots and automation systems mean that they are realistic considerations for all sizes of business, from SMEs to global OEMs.
Of these, and given the changes in current global economy, where do you see particular growth for KUKA and what are the key reasons for this?
Industrial robots have traditionally been used heavily in automotive manufacturing for welding and assembly applications. But look beyond the vehicle plant and robots are everywhere – packing product into bags, loading pallets, removing defective food from a conveyor, drilling holes in aircraft wings, blending sauces and soups, guiding parts to shop floor assembly points.
Look further and more complex applications and operations are abound. Medical robots assist surgeons with complex surgery, cube robots pick customer orders in fulfilment centres, service robots help the infirm, milling robots carve statues, and so on. More niche and interesting uses are constantly being devised, as researchers also experiment with affordable collaborative robots, such as the new KUKA LBR iisy. The sensitive cobot LBR iisy will be the first of its kind to run exclusively on the new operating system supported by the iiQKA Ecosystem – in combination with the KR C5 micro robot controller and the new smartPAD pro teach pendant device. KUKA's aim is not only to make robotics more accessible to newcomers, but also to further develop its existing customer base. Over the next years, the goal is for every KUKA product to be equipped with the new iiQKA.OS and iiQKA Ecosystem – it is a long-term development project in which the first steps have now been made.
Built on a Linux kernel, the entire architecture of the new OS is designed for rapid development and maximum user-friendliness: iiQKA.OS will provide updates and upgrades quickly, so that more functions will be added over time. The new OS will also support the existing KUKA Robot Language (KRL). This will allow existing customers who have expertise with KUKA.SystemSoftware (KSS) to migrate smoothly to iiQKA.OS in the coming years and continue to use workflows and codes.
Which major markets do these applications serve, globally?
KUKA robots are widely used by most industry sectors including aerospace, arc welding automotive, food and beverage, construction, consumer goods, electronics, foundry, healthcare, logistics, machine tools, metal, plastics, and white goods, to name just a few.
In terms of the supply chain, are there certain regions across the globe maintaining resilience despite current geopolitical issues? And with respect to COVID, did sales for the company increase in the medical sector?
Within medical and pharmaceutical manufacturing, robots are playing an increasingly important role across the entire production line – from part sorting, product assembly and light machine-tending, to final inspection and packaging.
The Coronavirus pandemic caused a surge in demand for medical and pharmaceutical research and development as vaccines had to be developed in an unprecedentedly short timescale. Many leadingmanufacturers in these fields were engaged in this critical work and robotic automaton played a key role in reducing time scales to bring products to market and, of course, saving a great many lives in the process.
Robots are being utilised within laboratories to transport microtiter plates between instruments, for example. Laboratories differ from industrial applications in that, although tasks are repetitive, they are not as consistent and may change depending on the experiment. This is where smaller, mobile, and collaborative robots offer the benefit of reduced footprints and increased adaptability. A good example of this is a project at the University of Liverpool that utilises a KUKA KMR iiwa mobile cobot solution.
This extra utilisation of robotics did cause an increase in demand for the hardware, but due to the nature of the pandemic, including lockdowns and production issues, some critical components became difficult to source and so supply chains were stretched. KUKA managed to weather the storm reasonably well, thanks to the resilience and ingenuity of our workforce across all departments and continues to satisfy customer demands. While these issues continue to be a challenge for most manufacturers, the hope is that the situation will ease next year.
With respect to aerospace applications – are they any specific projects that KUKA robotics are playing an important role?
Industry often needs to trial a new process before it incurs the cost and risk of installing it in a factory, where it might not run optimally, or even fail. The High Value Manufacturing (HVM) Catapult centres help both big and small companies experiment with new technology before they scale-up for production.
KUKA robots are working in projects at six of the seven HVM Catapult centres. All four of the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Centre (AMRC)’s franchises, in South Yorkshire, North Wales, Preston and Broughton, have KUKA robots involved in research, as have Irish Manufacturing Research, CONFIRM and QUB in Ireland. Much of the research is for aerospace and non-automotive industry R&D, further proving that robots today have a much broader remit than automotive.
The VIEWS project at the Advanced Forming Research Centre (AFRC) in Strathclyde has helped Spirit AeroSystems increase the rate of cost-effective, non-destructive evaluation and testing of the geometries and material properties of composite components in aircraft winglets. This accelerated their manufacture and helped Spirit select the Glasgow-based facility as its European R&D base.
Working with an aerospace company, the team at Factory 2050 has commissioned an automated cleaning and sealing system, using a KUKA KR60 on top of a KMP1500 AGV. This project will eventually demonstrate the flexibility of robots when mounted to an autonomous platform that is able to navigate using Simultaneous Location and Mapping, aka SLAM, technologies.
Given the company’s investment programme, what are these in terms of the areas that come under your marketing leadership?
On the way to a new era of intuitive, fast, and powerful automation for all, KUKA has invested in its new iiQKA operating system. This will form the base of an entire ecosystem, providing access to a powerful selection of components, programs, apps, services, and equipment that are easy to install, operate and use to enhance the system. This iiQKA Ecosystem based on iiQKA.OS will make it possible for newcomers to implement automation without specialised training, while greatly improving and simplifying the process for experts.
Software is more important than ever for the user-friendliness of an entire robot system. This requires an operating system that is intuitive to use and offers access to an ecosystem of components, programs, apps, services, and accessories – such as will come with iiQKA.OS.
Other areas of investment and development within the EMEA Region are a new state-of-the-art UK showroom and EMEA Application Centre in Vilanova, Spain. These will both open towards the end of September when existing and prospective customers, as well as key KUKA System Partners, will be invited to special open day events to mark the occasion. These will provide them with the opportunity to see and discuss the latest KUKA automation technology, discuss their own challenges and requirements, and network with other KUKA users and their industry peers.
Neil Mead, Head of Regional Marketing EMEA, LATAM & India, KUKA Robotics
For further details, please contact: