Automated Production at KUKA AG. © KUKA AG
Automated Production at KUKA AG. © KUKA AG

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. 

Light-duty robot LBR iiwa
Light-duty robot LBR iiwa. @KUKA AG

E-commerce – growth potential for the logistics as a whole 

In logistics, do you especially see e-commerce as an important growth area for KUKA?  

The automotive industry has successfully worked on its innovations in order to increase margins. The e-commerce sector offers a lot of potential, because it is hardly automated. An example of this: With an online mail-order company, products must be found on shelves within a short time, brought to a packing station and then sent. This process can be automated. We are working to optimize e-commerce in the area of logistics. This has enormous growth potential—for KUKA, but also for the logistics industry as a whole. 

Through Industry 4.0 and improved robots, at least as many new jobs will be created and will old ones disappear.

In the 1980s, IBM advertised that computers do work that people could not be expected to do. Does this apply now to your robots?  

In fact, ergonomics, work safety and efficiency are essential factors for use. Just think of working above one’s head, which is extremely strenuous and continually requires breaks. The same is true of heavy components, workstations in environments that are hazardous to health, etc.  

But there are always critics who warn of impending job losses in the millions—also in Europe?  

There will never be a personless factory in my opinion. Through Industry 4.0 and improved robots, at least as many new jobs will be created as will old ones disappear. The robot performs standardized work steps that are physically strenuous, unergonomic or dangerous for the human being.  

The human being is focused on activities in which its superior creativity or its capability to handle exceptions or even the smallest deviations, required—and they will arise even in the most intelligent production system. A factory does not become smart until human beings and robots work together.  

Look at the demographic trend, which is certainly a crucial factor for the future: More people are retiring than are young people taking up work. This gap could be filled by robots. Robots could relieve older people of their work and preserve their health.  

When you became CEO in 2009, KUKA was threatened by bankruptcy. Since then, sales have risen from EUR 900 million to more than 3 billion. How was the decision actually made back then?  

Originally that was not the plan at all. As the holding company, we held a 25 percent inte-rest in KUKA. In the turbulence at that time, the management and supervisory boards re-signed, and somebody had to take the lead. The employee side in the board asked me to become active operationally, and since then we have been working very well together. At the time it was primarily a matter of stabilizing the company and its finances. 

This interview was first published in the Interroll magazine 'moving' in 2016, 2nd edition.

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Dr. Till Reuter, CEO at KUKA AG

Since 2009, Dr. Till Reuter (49) has been CEO of KUKA AG, the specialist for robot-based automation. The long-established company, founded in 1898 by Johann Josef Keller and Jakob Knappich in Augsburg, Germany, as an acetylene plant, which is now an important innovator of welding technology, plant engineering and robotics, was in danger of bankruptcy. Since then, the former marathon runner and triathlete Reuter has achieved a unique success story. With the acquisition of the Swiss logistics giant Swisslog, the company is now also more active in automation solutions for logistics. The Chinese company Midea now owns the majority of KUKA.

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