Cobots in the Classroom: How the UR Academy Upskills Students and Industry Professionals
“The quality of a Universal Robot is a given, it’s how you use the collaborative robot arm that determines whether you’re successful or not.” In this blog, we speak with Mikkel Vahl, Global Head of Training and Education at Universal Robots, about the critical role of the UR Academy in deploying cobots and look at lessons learned developing the world’s largest, most comprehensive training platform for collaborative robots.
Q: Your background is not in industrial automation. How did you enter the world of cobots?
A: My hometown Odense, where Universal Robots (UR) is headquartered, has developed into one of the robot capitals of the world. I became intrigued by the industry and was curious to find out how companies were trained to program and operate technical hardware such as robots – and also, the whole aspect of having an Academy as part of an overall business offering. Coming from a career in education has been vital for understanding how to bring actual learning to the participants, turning that learning experience into real life deliverables.
Q: Let’s start out with a quick snapshot of where the UR Academy is at today?
A: We’ve come a long way since we launched the first Academy modules back in 2016. Today, we have more than 100,000 users from 130+ countries completing online and in-classroom robotics training courses available in 16 languages. We have 65 Authorized Training Centers in 24 countries with more planned in 2021. The Academy was launched as we wanted to create in-house UR experts and upskill the workforce in mastering cobots. So far, it looks like we’re succeeding with that mission as we clearly see users taking UR Academy training shorten their cobot implementation time significantly - and they start building their cobot fleet with additional cobots much faster. As we started building the Academy training, we also reached out to schools – from elementary to college level and vocational training centers - offering them a hands-on experience programming and operating a real industrial robot.
Mikkel Vahl, second from right, heads up the award-winning Academy team.
Q: How has the educational industry reacted to cobots? Are we starting to see more cobots in the classroom?
A: Yes definitely – the educational sector is a really important focus area for UR - and there are many reasons for that. We’ve heard about the “skills gap” for years, how manufacturers simply can’t find skilled employees. Getting state-of-the art cobots into the classroom is instrumental in addressing this gap and offer students instant employability. A cobot is the perfect classroom companion; it’s safe to use around students and it’s easy to learn – yet it’s an actual industrial robot that students will encounter once they leave the school setting. While I have only tremendous praise and respect for the many educational robots offered by companies such as VEX Robotics and LEGO, they’re not the automation solutions you will meet on the factory floor.
An increasing number of schools are experiencing how students trained on cobots are in high demand, and we’re seeing a real shift towards getting collaborative robots into the classroom at an earlier stage. We’re also hearing that both teachers and students are much more motivated working with robots that have real-world applicability while receiving an industry-recognized certificate.
The PSG College in India is one of the schools now introducing students to UR cobots, providing an enriching, industry-ready learning experience.
Q: What are examples of new Academy initiatives you’re currently working on?
A: A common denominator for all Academy courses is that content is hands-on, interactive, realistic and visual. There’s no ‘death by Power Point’ in our classes as students work directly with the cobot, either in real life or through our free simulator. I’d like to highlight three areas that we’re focusing on right now, all shaped by user feedback:
Microcredentials and Education Programs
Offering micro-credentials that you can add to your CV has become extremely popular and sought after. All surveys show that a vast majority of human resource managers are interested in the micro-credentials of potential hires - while most employees also respond that they want more opportunities for career growth We have started offering the world’s first cobot curriculum for schools and colleges available through our Academy Learning Management System. Schools can now purchase our cobots with relevant application hardware (conveyors, grippers, etc.), 32 lessons of curriculum, an online platform to manage the content, - and a certification of teachers to enable their students to earn an industry-recognized certificate they can use to stand out in the crowd and officially show their mastery of a particular cobot skill set.
Students at the vocational school Städtische Berufsschule für Metall – Design – Mechatronik in Munich, Germany, now train on the UR cobots in preparation for careers, automating processes in the automobile industry.
It’s a turnkey program that provides a clearly defined pathway for students to master cobot programming and deployment as part of an Industry 4.0 career in robotics and advanced manufacturing. Students completing this program will be at the same level as industry professionals completing the Core Training modules at our Authorized Training centers. We are currently offering curricula to schools in Germany, Spain and United States and expect to have three more markets by the second quarter of 2021.
As the Covid pandemic hit last year and we started canceling classes at our Authorized Training Centers, the need for a virtual alternative has become crucial to our efforts in connecting with students. Tools such as our UR simulator and remote cobot control options will be important in delivering an experience as were the students in an actual classroom. We’re developing a 3D environment for the simulator that will provide the same kind of programming experience as pilots entering a flight simulator. This year alone, we’re hoping to virtually train thousands of students.
Universal Robots’ Authorized Training Centers build on the online training modules, offering more advanced training sessions for industry professionals. The Training Centers are offered both at UR’s own facilities around the world and through partners – as seen here at Advanced Control Solutions in the U.S.
Customized learning experiences
We’re currently considering moving away from standardized modules. Instead of having students go through certain levels, we will introduce customized application-focused modules earlier on and guide them down a path they choose. Some students might not need to learn about vision but need more insights on CNC interfacing, we’ll provide a way for them to embark on that journey from the onset, both in online modules for self-study and smaller, more directed classes either in-class or virtual.
What we want to create is a degree of stickiness; we offer the free online training that convinces potential customers that deploying and programming a UR cobot is something they can do – once they have the cobot, we keep providing continuous upskilling opportunities by offering the training content and the professional development they need for their specific scenario.
Q: How is the user-driven feedback shaping the UR Academy?
A: All our courses are built on feedback from our unrivaled install base of more than 50,000 cobots worldwide. For those that already have a cobot, we ask them what they are missing, what their needs are, whether there is any other direction of the UR Academy that they would like to see. Every week, I meet with a group of ten UR master trainers from all over the world to gather feedback and discuss the need for a specific direction on modules they hear from customers and regions. We have a very strict way of developing new courses and modules, our learning philosophy is that we write the course, test, and rewrite. We only put out courses that people have fed back to us that they need. We track what modules users complete, what their areas of interest are, whether they move on from core training to the next levels – all this data goes into our database so we can follow up appropriately. While we are increasingly starting to offer customized journeys through the UR Academy, we consistently focus on offering content on the most popular applications. Our specific application track modules are based on some of the applications most users would like to deploy cobots for: machine tending, palletizing and screw driving.
Q: What are some of your goals and missions, leading the UR Academy effort?
A: Ideally, we want to get to a point where no robot sale happens without UR Academy training. Our cobots are very easy to deploy and use, but we also know that customers who complete the instructor-led classes are most successful. They have a better understanding of how to use their robots and can apply this knowledge to other applications. As a result, they have less service calls and build up in-house expertise which is valuable for manufacturers on so many levels.