An interview with Dr. Till Reuter, CEO of KUKA AG.
Dr. Reuter, “the Internet of Things,” the buzzword currently impacting all industries, wouldn’t even be conceivable without robots, would it?
The robot plays a key role in Industry 4.0 as the interface between the real and the digital world. In the smart factory, the robot exchanges data with other intelligent systems and machines, and sends and receives production data from the cloud. And the flexibility that robots bring to production will also become ever more important in the future, as the requirements of modern manufacturing increase. Things will increasingly be produced according the individual desires of the customer. We need flexible production and autonomous robots that are able to work hand in hand with human beings.
“Autonomous, intelligent robots”: That sounds a little like science fiction.
Robots will be able to check, optimize and document the results of their work. They will notice, for example, when they may fail and will then independently order a replacement part. In this way, downtime and therefore costs will be reduced. The intelligent systems will increasingly be in a position to fulfill certain tasks independently and react autonomously to influences by drawing conclusions from various data relationships.
Mobile robot systems for warehouse logistics
At the Hannover Messe, in addition to the sensitive light-duty robot LBR iiwa, which can work together with people, mobile systems were among your Industry 4.0 solutions. But it goes even further?
The goal is that the robot can support the human being in an ever-greater number of areas. If a sensitive robot such as LBR iiwa can “see” with a vision system, then it can take on totally new tasks, for example removing objects from boxes or packing them. An important aspect is mobility, so the robot can become virtually multitalented. If it can move from A to B, it could get items from shelves and bring them to the packaging station.
That opens up completely new applications, especially in warehouse logistics. In our robot production, our mobile KMR iiwa plays a supporting role. It navigates autonomously through production and provides workers with materials, such as screws, at their workstations. It removes the boxes from the storage shelf, holds them up to a QR-code scanner and thereby detects their individual target positions. This means that the box tells the robot what is to be done with it. The supplier is also continuously informed about the inventory.
The acquisition of Swisslog caused quite a stir. Was that also part of the diversification philosophy?
At the end of 2014/beginning of 2015 when we took over Swisslog, it was about the size of KUKA in 2009. That was a big step. The idea behind it was: KUKA is big in the automation of the production world, while Swisslog is strong in the automation of the logistics world. And we see that we can combine these two worlds. This changes the entire value chain, making logistics much more important.
Customer’s desires change production and logistics
Let us take an example such as the production of athletic shoes: When you want to buy athletic shoes nowadays, you will probably go to a specialty store. What does that mean? The manufacturers manufacture largely in Asia, and from there the shoes are taken by ship to the stores and sold. This doesn’t work anymore with our present consumer behavior. Because customers go on the Internet and design their individual gym shoe—with green stripes or blue dots.
The customer’s desires feed directly into production from outside of the process. And on-line customers today also don’t want to wait for six weeks to get their product; they want it now! That certainly changes production and logistics as a whole.
Right now KUKA is active in many industries, from logistics and aerospace to health care. At the same time, the company has increasingly become a global player. Is this also part of the targeted stabilization?
Seen regionally, it is very clear that Asia is the driver for us. Especially the Chinese market is an important growth market for automation. The population of robots there is still very small. Presently, only 30 industrial robots per 10,000 employees are being used in the manufacturing industry. In Germany, the population density of robots is nearly ten times as high. But Europe and the USA continue to be important sales markets for us.