International Federation of Robotics to Greek enterpreneurs: Dare to take the first move

by Symela Touchtidou,@stouchtidou

Dr. Susanne Bieller, General Secretary of the International Federation of Robotics, describes herself as an “ambassador of robots” with a mission “to ensure a better understanding of the complex industry issues around the globe”. She took over the position of General Secretary of the International Federation of Robotics in 2019, at the age of 41. The International Federation of Robotics serves as the voice of the global robotics industry and represents more than 60 robotics companies, research organizations and national robot associations from over twenty countries.

Dr. Susanne Bieller talks to Greek Business File about the current status of robotics in Greece, opportunities and potential.

In IFR’s latest report, we read that “the use of industrial robots in factories around the world is accelerating at a high rate”. Should workers be worried? Is there a risk of massive job losses?

On the contrary: The use of robots creates more, better-paid, jobs. Robots improve the quality of work. They give workers more autonomy and job satisfaction and make jobs safer. Robots do typically automate single tasks of a certain job, leaving the remainder unchanged or even creating new work. Robots will not replace but rather complement and augment labor: The future will be robots and humans working together.
Many studies have been conducted on this topic, and the overall result is a positive effect of robotization on the job market. Robots create jobs. The real job killer would be “not to use robots”.

Robots increase productivity and competitiveness. There are studies proving that companies that do not use robots fall behind their competitors – and jobs vanish to the competitor or even outside the country. Automation has led overall to an increase in labor demand. There has been some research that, firstly, robot-adopting industries have so far been comparatively more resistant to the long-term downward trend in the employment shares of European manufacturing sectors, and, secondly, countries that have high levels of automation are more resilient to the ongoing decline in manufacturing, especially in terms of employment.

We understand that robots are not just about factory production. Their use is spreading in services too. In which sectors are they most popular and why? Do they replace humans?

The top five sectors for service robots are:

  • transport and logistics
  • professional cleaning
  • medical robotics
  • hospitality
  • agriculture

The most important service sector for service robots is transport and logistics – including intralogistics in manufacturing settings, and warehousing for e-commerce.

The reasons to use robots in these sectors are diverse: Most importantly, the lack of skilled labor or the lack of labor that is willing to do the jobs are drivers for this automation. Sometimes, robots offer additional services that have not been available without them. And in some cases, the robot supports the human in fulfilling its task, so the robot is augmenting the human and helping him or her to perform better – this is particularly important for medical robots, e.g. supporting highly qualified surgeons.

Robots are supporting us humans in all these cases.

 

Are there new uses of robots in production we could not have imagined some years ago?

We might have imagined new uses but they might not have been available. Cobots enabled new applications where a close collaboration between a human worker and a robot is possible. Also the use of sensors to see or sense their environment and react to it has evolved over the past few years. A typical application for such sense-and-respond application are pick-and-place tasks, where a robot unpacks boxes of unstructured or even unknown objects.

The potential for Greece

Greece seems to lag behind concerning the use of industrial robots. What could be the reasons for this?

The reasons why some countries lag behind can be manifold. First of all, one should look at the mix of manufacturing sectors and applications performed within for the respective country. We know that some industries are more advanced and experienced in using robots, while others traditionally are a bit more hesitant. The automotive industry, for example, in some countries contributes to half the operational stock of robots. The electronics industry is another major user of industrial robots. Countries with a lower share of automotive and/or electronics production naturally have lower chances of deploying robots. A second factor for a higher share of automation is the infrastructure: first of all, skilled labor needs to be available in a country or region to program and operate robots, but it is also relevant whether universities, R&D institutes are supporting the deployment of robots, and whether local system integrators possess a profound knowledge both in robotics and the process technology.

In Greece, the majority of businesses are SMEs. Can these companies afford and make use of robots?

Sure, also SMEs can benefit from the use of robots. New robots are brought to the market that are easier to set-up and use, that lower the entry barriers for SMEs to use automation. Especially cobots and low-cost robots are addressing SMEs. We know that capital investment is not as easy for SMEs, but next to lowering costs of robots, new business models like pay-per-use or robots-as-a-service (RaaS) are being introduced. 

Is there something you would like to suggest to Greek entrepreneurs concerning the use of robots? Any advice you could give?

My advice would be not to be afraid of robots. Dare to take the first move: define your needs, start small and with easy to achieve steps, collect the necessary information. There are many case studies from other users of robots where you can learn from. Exchange and learn from the best practices of others. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. And seek help – you do not have to go on the automation journey all by yourself.

Mobile robots in operation at ABB’s semiconductor manufacturing plant in Lenzburg, Switzerland, source: IFR

How to join the club

We see that Germany is the main robot producing country in Europe. Which are the key factors that help build a robots producing industry?

The most important factor probably is the right infrastructure. That starts with universities that have a focus on engineering and robotics that train the engineers that would develop and produce the robots. A close contact to the robot users is also crucial. Germany also has a strong robot customer base, particularly the automotive industry. The close collaboration of the manufacturers and the users is crucial for customer driven product development.

Plant KUKA Toledo Production Operations, source: IFR

Are small countries like Greece capable of producing technology to be part of the robot building industry?

The question probably is whether having an own robot building industry is really needed to deploy more robots. If we look at a large country like the USA, we only see few minor robot producers: there is no major American robot manufacturer. Nevertheless, the country is among the top five robot users and number 7 in robot density. What the country is very strong in is system integration. For a country like Greece it is nonetheless possible to join the “club” of robot nations – it needs entrepreneurship, innovation and investment to achieve this.

BIO

Prior to IFR, Dr. Susanne Bieller worked as a project manager for the European Robotics Association EUnited Robotics for five years. She began her professional career as managing director of the flat-panel display group at the German Engineering Federation (VDMA) in Frankfurt, where she worked for seven years. After completing her academic career, the PhD Chemist went to the European Commission in Brussels where she looked into public relations and communications.


This interview 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.