“I cannot explain how and why I got involved with numbers from a young age. When I faced the challenge of being admitted to the Greek Polytechnic School, I started spending day and night with math exercises. They gradually took me to a magical world that much later took over my place in the adventure of spirit and science.” Sakos Ikonomopoulos, founder of ZENON, remembers.
“My journey in the world of technology began in 1976 with my dissertation on Ross Ashby’s work ‘Design for a Brain’ which concerned the study of the adaptive mechanisms of the human brain and the attempt to design electronic systems for their simulation. After 12 years in Europe, I returned to Greece with the aim of founding a company to develop robotics applications in the Greek industry and to take up research projects on behalf of European companies with which I had worked before and knew their business plans for the development and introduction of robotics technologies.”
This is how the story of Zenon, the first Greek robotics company, begun.
Zenon was founded in 1988 by Sakos Ikonomopoulos, an electrical engineer and Docteur Ingenieur at the University of Paris VI. Zenon was an Industrial Automation Company, primarily focused in the robotics field.
“Supported by my youth, risk ignorance and my savings, I founded the company ZENON Industrial Automation in 1988, rented offices, hired staff and embarked on a journey that lasted 18 years,” Ikonomopoulos narrates. “I had the technological and business knowledge of the field in the bag, my acquaintances with important people in robotics such as the robot manufacturing companies KUKA in Augsburg and Staubli in Favèrges, the innovative institutes Fraunhofer in Berlin and Welding Institute in England, and industries eager to invest in robotics, among which Siemens in Munich, Luftahansa Technik in Hamburg and Volvo Aero in Sweden.”
The company invested in qualified personnel, analysis of the national market and development of a sophisticated technological infrastructure. Projects were implemented in manufacturing (robotic welding applications) and education (installation of laboratory equipment). Later, the company took over large projects of the defense market.
“My first industrial project was a robotic welding application at Gyalidaki’s water heater company in Egaleo. More than 50 projects in the Greek industry followed. For example the grinding applications in Metallurgia Attica and Vrochidis, the packaging of chocolates in Pavlidis and Mabel, the packaging of bread in Chipita, the palletization at Fage and probably the largest robotics project ever completed in Greece, the assembly of bombers in Pyrkal,” Ikonomopoulos says.
“The advantage of the company was its participation in major research projects in Greece and abroad through which it developed many innovative products and original applications.
I briefly mention the standalone auxiliary robot for the movement of people with disabilities, the robotic chemistry laboratory for distance learning, the underwater robot for cleaning the inner walls of tankers, the movement rehabilitation robot of people who have suffered a stroke, the low-cost palletizing robot, and much more.”
Between 1998 and 1999, Zenon developed an innovative robotic grinding cell (RGC) to repair aircraft turbine blades, which was also sold in international markets.
Gradually, Zenon offered Integrated Automation and IT solutions in a broad range of business sectors: manufacturing, transportation, defense, education, energy, environment protection, commerce and services.
“What made the company known abroad, boosted its growth and led it into the Greek stock market, was the development of a robotic sanding application for the repair of aircraft engine fins. I knew repair and maintenance companies of such engines (i.e. Volvo Aero and Lufthansa Technik) needed such a tool. The first pilot unit was positively evaluated by the above companies and by General Electric in Singapore and gave it a place in the palmarès of the European technology community as advertised by the EU in a special feature in the Paris Match magazine,” Ikonomopoulos says.
“Father of robotics” Joe Engelberger visited ZENON premises while in Athens for a conference organized at EVEA.
ZENON’s history came to a bitter end when the company run into financial troubles due to uncompleted contracts with Greek public institutions.
The industrial robotics department was sold to the Theodorou Group. The successor company, under the name “ZENON AUTOMATION” continues its successful course.
However, the research and development department of ZENON was dissolved. Members of its team established their own companies, using the experience and know-how they acquired at ZENON.
Having left the industry with bittersweet memories, Ikonomopoulos tells Greek Business File: “To summarize my business experience in Greece, I would say that orderly, independent and incorruptible justice is the necessary condition for growth in general and technology growth in particular. The rest is doable.”
This article is published in the January/ February issue of Greek Business File, part of the cover story on the autonomous production methods powered by robots. GBF presents the global trends in the robotics markets, the level of robotic process automation in Greek enterprises, the pioneers of the sector in Greece and the Greek companies that have emerged as Industrial Robot Companies. The January / February issue of Greek Business File is available here.