From Technology Pioneer to Customer Advocate: A discussion with UR President Jürgen von Hollen
With nearly 50,000 cobots sold worldwide, Universal Robots is a very different company today than the innovative upstart that pioneered a new approach to automation 15 years ago. In a candid interview as he prepares to leave the company at the end of the year, President Jürgen von Hollen looks back at his four years at the helm. His insights range from the challenges of being a market disrupter and the evolution to a company focused on customer solutions and continuous improvements driven by insights and data.
Q: As you look back on UR’s 15-year history, what stands out the most for you?
A: For me, it’s the ability to look back to the beginning and see that the founders were—and we still are—on the right track. I always start presentations by talking about our vision of empowering people. That may seem like an odd vision for a company that makes robots. But 15 years ago, we saw an untapped opportunity to empower people to accomplish great things with a new kind of automation that is easy to use and collaborates with them. That vision hasn’t changed.
Q: How have you been able to maintain that vision as both UR and the market have evolved and customers’ expectations have changed?
A: I believe that we have been able to maintain our vision and our focus, despite the rapid evolution of the collaborative robot market over the last years. Many believe that when you’re a disrupter and first mover that success is easy as you have no competition. But it is quite the opposite…. It has meant that we have worked hard to create an entirely new market segment, a new global distribution network, a new ecosystem of developers, and ultimately a completely new business model. There’s a lot of work in creating awareness, influencing standards, and changing customer perceptions and expectations, which have been influenced by their experience of traditional robots.
As new players enter the market, I see that as a positive for us. Firstly, it’s a validation that we're on the right track, and it further supports the awareness within the market and thereby expands our potential customer base. Customers typically don’t want to have a single-sourcing situation in their supply chain and production in order to avoid risk. We were building an entirely new category, and many of the larger customers essentially kicked the tires for many years, validating our technology, but hesitated to adopt our products fully. However, as the total market grew, our growth scaled fast because customers had alternatives and it further legitimized the technology.
But customers’ expectations concerning quality have also increased over the years, as they deploy more advanced applications in their production processes. This is a natural maturing of the market and requires us to continually finetune our technology but also our business model as a whole. And that journey doesn’t stop, as applications, settings and circumstances continue to evolve. We will have to work closer with our channel and ecosystem partners to get even closer to end users over the next years.
At UR, the development of the robot starts with a data-driven design based on an unrivaled amount of data from the installed base. Watch how UR’s Quality Matters approach influences every step in the creation of a cobot.
Q: How has that focus changed over time?
A: When I joined the company in 2016, we were highly dependent on our distribution partners. We had very little visibility of the customer who was actually using our cobots. We grew very fast based on very little data.
Since then, we’ve put a lot of effort into systems and processes that help us better understand and support both our distribution partners—who we continue to work very closely with—and our end customers. As an example, our myUR platform allows end users and distributors to register and manage their cobots, and gives us essential information to help them be more successful.
Having this data-driven approach allows us to be much more effective and efficient with our resources. By understanding the applications and what customers are doing with our cobots, we can better support them.
Q: What was the impact of the Teradyne acquisition, which occurred just before you joined the company?
A: When UR was acquired by Teradyne in 2015 it helped us with 3 key aspects of our business: a data-driven culture, supply-chain competence, and strategic perspective.
The data-driven decision-making culture that Teradyne has instilled into our business has accelerated our ability to better understand our business and to make more effective decisions to support our targets. The visibility we have gained into our business over the last years has been tremendous and it is vital that we continue to build our knowledge of our market. This will be a key success factor for us, leveraging the right metrics and using the data to make good decisions quickly.
One of the first things where Teradyne supported us was in the supply chain, where we were struggling with some suppliers that could not support our growth rates. Teradyne has an excellent supply chain team that immediately helped us to secure new, stronger suppliers and alternative suppliers and reduced supplier costs. Quality was a key aspect with choosing the right suppliers and ensuring that specifications for all components were in place. This was an essential requirement to achieve our growth and quality targets.
Teradyne sees the industrial automation market as a long-term strategic perspective, which has allowed us to build our business for growth, investing into our product and innovation roadmap that will deliver sales out in the future. Teradyne is a strong fit with UR, allowing us to draw upon their experience and expertise where and when necessary.
Q: How did that impact the strategic direction for UR?
A: When people look at a technology company like ours, they think differentiation is driven only by technology. And we have been able to do that successfully for many years. But technology differentiation alone isn’t sustainable in the long term, unless you marry it with something else. At UR, we have multiple strategic components that together deliver a sustainable competitive advantage, making it difficult for a competitor to follow. Our sales network, the UR+ Ecosystem and UR Academy are critical strategic components for that. UR+ is an ecosystem of developers who offer tested and certified peripherals, software, and application kits that our customers can easily find in our open online marketplace. And UR Academy literally transformed the market by offering free, online training that allowed anyone to become a robot programmer and gave customers even more opportunities to accomplish new things with their cobot.
We have been a pure product company, but now we’re highly focused on understanding how customers use the cobots and how we can support those applications. Because at the end, customers aren’t just buying a cobot—they’re buying a solution that meets their requirements. How our cobots are deployed determines how customers view our product and it also has a large impact on the performance of our cobots in an application. Quality is influenced greatly by deployments and customers look at whether the complete solution is successful or not. Therefore, it is critical that we gain transparency and ensure that we work closely with our partners to deliver the best customer experience.
We have a unique opportunity to take advantage of our market position, our ecosystem, and our partner network. Our ability to continue to leverage the resources inside and outside our company, to execute our strategy, and to continuously learn and improve is going to be the key to our success.
We are helping customers grow and do amazing things. That’s the really exciting part for me!