The next era of collaborative automation: customer-driven product development

Almost twenty years after the first collaborative robots (cobots) came to market, experienced and vocal end-users are driving the next era of automation through customer-driven product development.

The next era of collaborative automation:  customer-driven product development
The next era of collaborative automation: customer-driven product development

When Universal Robots (UR) started making cobots, few people believed that a robot could be versatile, intuitive, safe, and affordable enough for almost any use, by any size company - yet today this is a reality. Now, every year, collaborative automation technology becomes more sophisticated yet easier to use than ever before. What is driving this continual progress? Customer-driven product development.

End-users are the best judge of technology

Today’s cobot customers are fueled by the innovation around them – including case studies of what other companies have accomplished by turning to automation. Many are also now experienced cobot users. Even those who are new to the technology understand their own business’ needs better than anyone else and can offer valuable input to automation companies on their requirements. These customers are full of ideas about what automation can do for them and they know the developments that would make the biggest change to the way they work.

This focus on customer value is a philosophy that permeates Universal Robots across every level and in every department, and it’s helping the company move more quickly to meet changing customer needs.

Concept robots and the voice of the customer

Lars Agerlin, vice president of research and development, points to the evolution in UR’s product creation teams as a clear example of the customer focused approach. “To get the voice of the customer into our product-development process, we’ve reorganized our team to create ‘empowered product teams,’” Lars explains. This group digs deep into customer challenges to develop a clear link between what problems customers need to solve and the best way to do that. “As part of that, our team of curious engineers continues to talk to customers throughout the development process, showing them steps and getting feedback,” adds Lars.

The following example came out of a UR Innovation Labs organization and was championed by UR’s president, Kim Povlsen. Last year, the product creation team worked with customers to take a deep look at a group of related market segments that have similar ‘clean’ needs in their use of robotics, from keeping contaminants out of the robot to making a robot that can be thoroughly cleaned for manufacturing environments with especially stringent requirements such as food, pharmaceutical, medical and semiconductor manufacturers. By focusing on customer problems, they had a concept robot within six months. But customer input did not end there. The concept robot was shown at both the Automate (US) and Analytica (Germany) trade shows in 2022, a new and highly visible approach to co-development which resulted in fantastic feedback for the product team.

*If you want to know more, listen to Kasper Kreiberg Andersen, innovation program manager at UR, discuss this new concept robot approach in our**"Redefining Automation" roundtable.*

The next era of collaborative automation:  customer-driven product developmentThe next era of collaborative automation:  customer-driven product developmentThe next era of collaborative automation:  customer-driven product development

“We brought this concept robot to these large, international shows to get accelerated input from interested customers, and we weren’t disappointed,” says Lars. “We received immediate and extensive feedback from dozens of customers not only in those expected industries, but from others as well, some of which we hadn’t even considered. Some of these were potential customers who were eager to explain why they wanted to use cobots but couldn’t – and what we could do to fix that.”

Lars explains how this approach is critical to UR’s new agile processes. “We need to be able to adapt as we go, changing plans based on data or feedback as we receive it,” Lars adds. “In a waterfall approach to development, we put out requirements and spent two years following them. Now we’re running in parallel with our requirements so we can continuously release products and updates that are in tune with customer needs. We are not a black box anymore.”

Making automation more straightforward than ever before

While this approach could result in specific cobot models to meet specific needs, Lars’ teams are also looking at how they can continue to make cobots easier to use for existing processes. “We’re always looking for ways to make using cobots easier and more intuitive,” says Lars. “The easier it is, the faster the deployment time, and the faster customers can start to address their applications.” That’s true for both end users and the ecosystem partners, who help make the journey smoother for customers.

PolyScope X was showcased at IMTS 2022 as a taste of future software capabilities. In the same way that UR showed its ‘clean’ concept cobot to get feedback, the company exhibited its new programming technology to learn from customers and partners. With more input from beta customers, PolyScope X will make it easier for all CNC machine shops, and especially high-mix, low-volume shops, to get customized, configurable programs without the need to re-program and with changeover times at maximum 10 minutes. And for common applications such as machine tending, PolyScope X can help customers go from unboxing to production in eight hours or less once the CNC machine is prepared for integration.

With PolyScope X, UR’s system integrators, OEMs, and UR+ partners get a bigger and better toolbox to create customized solutions for their customers. Integrators and partners will be able to develop their own templates and program code modules, enhancing their ability to create a fully configurable operator interface for their turnkey solutions. Ultimately, they’ll be able to better help their customers do more and handle changes in production without the need to reprogram.

Focus on value-driven design

The concept of customer-driven design isn’t necessarily new, although it’s rare in automation. Here at UR, we’re taking that even further, with a focus on design driven by what our customers value the most.

Fabio Montagna, UR vice president of product & solutions management, explains the concept. “If you ask customers what they want, they’ll tell you they want everything and they want it now. The key lies in finding what they actually *need*and understanding the value unlocked by attending to each need. We have to understand what matters most to them – and fix that first!” That approach is especially important in relatively new markets such as collaborative robotics, where users may not know exactly what they need. Fabio adds, “How do we decide what to build first? We operate in a fast-evolving market with so many ideas and opportunities. It is crucial to deploy our resources on the things that matter most, solving the customer problems that unlock the highest value and enabling them to succeed, grow, and flourish. If they succeed, we will succeed. That happens by optimizing value through listening – to the market, customers, analysts, etc. – and then working together. “Customer value-driven design only happens when there’s harmony, like an orchestra,” Fabio says. “If the trombone does its own thing and the oboe is playing another song, it won’t work. To create customer value, we need to listen and come together to explore: ‘Did we hear the same thing? Does that all mean the same thing? Are we all going in the same direction?’ It’s a spectacularly cross-functional effort that goes beyond just product creation, encompassing everyone who has insight into the mind of the customer.”

This is a process that occurs as a company matures, given the right leadership and the right support. “UR had to go through all its previous stages to get to this point, and now we’re ready,” Fabio says. “Kim Povlsen, UR’s president, is the biggest advocate of this philosophy, and our parent company Teradyne is completely on board.” The change is invigorating. New people are being hired to help make the shift happen, and existing employees are being empowered to seek out problems and solve them in new and innovative ways.
“We’re here to ensure that people can work with robots, not like robots,” both Lars and Fabio explain. That puts people at the center of design decisions, making sure that UR cobots remain the robots that people want to work with. “That’s the beauty of an empowered model,” says Fabio. “Decisions are being made by the people who are closest to the customers.”

Universal Robots

We believe that collaborative robotic technology can be used to benefit all aspects of task-based businesses – no matter what their size.

We believe that the latest collaborative robot technology should be available to all businesses. The nominal investment cost is quickly recovered as our robotic arms have an average payback period of just six months.

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