On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of our publisher, the industry sourcing company DirectIndustry, we’ve decided to celebrate 20 years of industrial innovations by giving the floor to the players that brought these innovations to life. In this interview, we focus on robotics. Jacques Dupenloup, Sales Director for France and Benelux at Stäubli, gives his insights into 20 years of innovations in robotics.
20 Years of ROBOTICS with… Stäubli
Stäubli is a Swiss robot manufacturer and mechatronics company founded in 1892 in Switzerland. They are world renowned for their SCARA line, 4-axis industrial robots designed for various industries including the automotive, food and electronics sectors. They also have a range of 6-axis robots, cobots and mobile robots.
DirectIndustry magazine: What are the biggest advancements in robotics of the last 20 years?
Jacques Dupenloup: There have been changes in the vision system, both in terms of technology and in terms of price. Twenty years ago, vision systems were very expensive, today have been democratized. There are also more markets concerned by robotics. In 1992, about 75% of robotics applications were dedicated to the automotive industry. Today it’s just over 30%. Types of robots have also evolved. Today, at Stäubli, we have over 80 different types of robots in our range, which differ in size and adaptation to different markets. We have greatly improved the programming aspect, we make robots easier to use for customers and accessible for everyone. In 2000, it wasn’t always easy to program a robot. Then there is also the cobotic revolution. Collaborative robots only represent 3% of world sales, but they attract customers who would not necessarily have come to robotics otherwise. And then there are more and more mobile robots. The trend in mobile and autonomous robotics is set to grow in the coming years.
DirectIndustry magazine: What is the biggest market for robotics today?
J.P.: The first applications of industrial robotics were in the automotive industry. Today, the automotive industry is no longer the only market for robotics. It represents 34%. Other sectors such as electronics, plastics processing, the medical industry, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, e-commerce with online orders and agriculture have become important.
DirectIndustry magazine: Is it still not worth automating everything?
J.P.: No. Look at automated surgery, the robot is still a tool that performs a procedure safely. There will always be men. We’re always going to need men. Man and robot; it’s not a duel, it’s a duo. The robot does the painful, repetitive, difficult tasks that provide low added value, as well as tasks where there is a need for constant quality, while the human concentrates on tasks that provide high added value.
DirectIndustry magazine: Can robots boost the number of products made in France?
J.P.: We’re starting to see companies relocating to France. In 2006, we partnered with SYMOP, the French syndicate of machines and technologies, to launch an initiative called “Robocaliser” a combination of the word robot and the French word “relocaliser” (relocating). The idea is that by robotizing we can maintain industrial sites in France. Twenty years ago, firms massively chose to offshore their manufacturing activities to Asia where labor was cheap. Today, in China, production lines in the electronics sector for example are completely robotized. So we can imagine bringing this activity back to France. And since over the past 20 years there have often been problems producing in China and then exporting to Europe – Coronavirus is currently a good example but there were other viruses before – why would we continue to import things by boat or by plane when we could produce them directly in France?
DirectIndustry magazine: Is software supplanting hardware today compared to 20 years ago?
J.P.: A robot is an arm and a controller, which is the software. So our teams have adapted over time. Initially, we had a more mechanical approach. Today our teams are working on developing new generations of controllers. We have recruited a lot in the software teams in recent years even though we remain specialists in mechatronics.
DirectIndustry magazine: What are the most important advances in mechatronics in the last 20 years?
J.P.: Our goal has always been to develop very precise robots that could work in both harsh and very clean environments. Speed is always very important. In a collaborative environment, of course, it has to be slower. We are also working on robot protection. For example, we have developed a whole range of robots for the food industry, to avoid bacteria, with paints that are resistant to power washing and with oil fit for consumption in the gearboxes. We adapt our robots to environments which all have different constraints.
DirectIndustry magazine: What couldn’t robots do 20 years ago that they still can’t do today?
J.P.: Reproduce human movement. Robots are blindly obedient. They follow the orders they are given. A robot doesn’t make decisions, it’s still a machine, and that’s good. We are talking more and more about AI, but today it is more about data feedback and predictive maintenance than about artificial intelligence. AI may one day allow a robot to choose one option over another depending on the context.
DirectIndustry magazine: What do you see for 20 years from now?
J.P.: I see mobile robots. For 20 years we’ve been putting robots in front of a stationary machine. Tomorrow we’ll have robots moving around workshops on AGVs. Today’s markets last less time, 1 or 2 years, whereas before markets lasted 7 years or more. So we have to adapt. And other markets are going to open up to robotics, such as construction, to carry heavy things. There is a labor shortage in this sector. We are already developing robotic applications for washing facades.