Cobots on the Central European production floor

Aurel Pasztor
Feb 28 · 5 min read

Central Europe is home to a large manufacturing industry because relatively lower labor costs. I take a look at how robots boost industrial automization efforts in this part of the world.

Many smaller machine shops and sheet-metal houses are competing based on price but finding skilled labor is a struggle even for employers in Eastern Europe. Automation is an attractive proposition to combat labor shortage but lower production volumes and margins made industrial robots too expensive for smaller manufacturers. Traditional industrial robots require skilled technicians to program them and guarding or light curtains are necessary to prevent human injury, changeover from jobs takes long, additional tooling, conveyors and maintenance equipment further increase costs.

Traditional industrial robot setting with cages and conveyor belts by Artur.Lowi, CC BY-SA 4.0

About 10–15 years ago, several robotics providers attempted to create low-cost, easily deployable “collaborative” robots that can start working on the shopfloor of smaller plants within the hour. Super-light weight designs and touch-screen interfaces allowed the robots to be mobile and easily deployable. Denmark based Universal Robots emerged as a leader of the category while other robotics companies followed and today almost all robot supplier produces or plan to release its own answer to the Universal Robot’s well-known UR5. “Cobots” as they are called, are so popular in the US, China and Western Europe that the American Robotic Industries Association suggests their current 3% market share will increase tenfold by 2025. While in 2017, China purchased fewer than 3,000 cobots; in 2025 it is forecast to order 80 thousand cobots and and reach an installed base of close to 1.5 million.

Cobots adoption in Central Europe

Today, Central Europe is not well penetrated by collaborative robots as it comes after China, Japan Western Europe and the US in priority for the vendors. The market leader Universal Robots has started two years ago to develop the market in the Czech Republic while challenger brands (mostly Asian) are not investing in the region yet.

Most experts agree that the first adopters here are the large, multinational players of the automotive industry (no surprise here) and their suppliers. These manufacturers have long established connections with local integrators and have case studies available from their plants in other geographies. The second most important area with and increasing number of cobots being deployed is the food industry.

Machine tending, pick and place and assembly applications are the most popular. One of the largest distributors in the region has allegedly sold more than 180 robots mostly for electric assembly. ”Food industry is coming up and I can see emerging trends for surface finishing but still the simplest pick and place type applications drive the market”- says Szabi Fekete the regional Sales Director of Danish EasyRobotics.

A cobot tending a CNC machine

In the meantime more and more new applications are becoming popular like screwdriving and painting even with small mobile robots on the shop floor.

While multinationals are fast in adopting new technologies, small players are slow to catch up here. „In the CE region, it is really unusual to see cobots in SMEs. “ — tells Istvan Balazs the CEE sales engineer of Onrobot.

In Western and Northern Europe and US robot providers find it easy to convince customers with a simple ROI argument because the math works there but not in Central Europe. „If I show Swedish a case study with a 9 month of ROI it is something I need to correct immediately to at least 2 years otherwise the potential partners think that I have no idea about how the things are going in this region. Wages and profit margins are much smaller here which makes investment harder and ROI longer.” — says Fekete.

A UR cobot with and OnRobot ripper mounted on an Easy Robotics cell

Robot solution vendors agree that education, pilots and added support are the most important factors that can win clients in this part of Europe. Trial weeks seem to be important here in CE, because buyers are rather conservative. Partly because of the relatively low marketing investment from brands, clients here “need to see to believe that it works” before they consider to buying a robot.

„Currently we are the main market educators. The largest part of my work contains of organising seminars for SMEs in manufacturing.” -says Mert Okumus who leads UR’s sales efforts in Hungary.

Seminar in Hungary

He adds that the Czech Republic and Poland stand out as the leading and most educated markets, followed by Hungary, Slovenia and Slovakia that are somewhere at the same level in knowledge. What differentiates the Czech Republic from the rest is that there SMEs have higher knowledge about cobots while in the other countries still the big multinational (mostly automotive) companies drive the sales. The rest of Eastern Europe including the Balkans and Bulgaria are untouched territories with very limited (if any) cobots deployed.

Frank Tobe, the founder of The Robot Report counted over 40 cobot vendors on the market in 2017. Universal Robots is clearly the market leader worldwide and has currently about 95% market share in the CE region as well. UR is challenged by the classic industrial robot companies (KUKA, ABB, Yaskawa) that are developing their own cobots and all industry experts are quick to mention that Hanwha (Korea), Techman (China) and AUBO (US) are increasingly noticeable in the region. In the end-of-arm tooling and accessories field Danish OnRobot and Canadian Robotiq are the most well-known brands.

On the big picture there are over six million factories worldwide, over two million of which reside in China; and seventy percent of those six million are small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs). The Boston Consulting Group reports these global factories have automated only 10 percent of those functions capable of being automated. No surprise then that Hyundai Motor Securities and other analysts expect a cobot tsunami in the coming years and the same is true for Central Europe. ”We expect strong growth from this region as the labour shortage is painfully apparent to manufacturers here. All automotive OEMs in Hungary are competing for the same pool of workers, there is no more supply available. Automation is a neccesity.” — thinks Okumus.

Disclaimer:

I am an early-stage VC investor with Day One Capital where OnRobot is one of our portfolio companies.

Aurel Pasztor

Written by

Partner @dayonecapital, Seed stage VC in CEE

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