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From Lego-robots to cobots

06 October, 2017

Smart Machines & Factories takes a look at how Esben H. Østergaard became a game changer in the world of robotics.

Roboholic. A title one might associate with Tony Stark at first glance; in the “Iron Man” movies, he runs a business with worldwide success and spends his lifetime developing new innovative technology involving humans and robots collaborating in perfect interaction. Both also applies to another Roboholic – one who’s not a fictional action hero but a real person: Esben H. Østergaard, CTO and co-founder of Universal Robots (UR), who developed the first commercially successful ‘cobot’ (collaborative robot) improving work processes and working conditions for companies and employees all over the world. Esben’s dream has always been to integrate robots into our everyday work life so that humans no longer have to struggle with monotonous tasks that a robot can better deal with. Both his vision and the origin of his passion for robots are worth taking a closer look at, which is why the German magazine “Der Konstrukteur” did an interview of another kind with him – titled the Roboholic Whiteboard.

From toy robots…

Esben’s enthusiasm for robots appeared at an astonishing early time in his life. When he was only four years old, he was already creating functioning small robots with Lego that were able to fulfil some essential tasks of his father’s work. His parents were working in the Philippines on a water project in Cebu City. They came home one day complaining about a problem of pulling cables through a pipe. The locals were tying the cable to the leg of a pig and then trying to cajole the animal through the pipe. Young Esben said “you need a robot for the job” and then proposed to build it. He made the crude robot and it did the job. It was the beginning of his career.

Esben’s childhood exemplified that getting in touch with robotics at an early state enabled him to address some of the challenges in the world of work – a world in which robots will gain ever more importance.

…to co-working cobots

Nowadays, the mutual completion of humans and robots is one of Esben’s main focus areas. He believes in a collaborative work processes where humans profit from the robots’ strengths, which are taking over monotonous and strenuous tasks. The product of this belief was manifested when Universal Robots sold the world’s first cobot in 2008: Robots that work right next to and together with humans outside of safety enclosures. With industries increasingly including cobots into daily work processes, Esben’s vision has already, to a large extent, become a reality. UR robots fulfil widely varying tasks in industries all over the world and assist millions of people in simplifying their business so they can better concentrate on their core qualifications.

Modern day tools

Speaking about his favorite applications, Esben likes it simple: In his eyes, seeing cobots work as an ordinary tool for man is the most exciting case. For this purpose, robots have to be easily understandable and easy to handle for everybody – just like hammer and nail. UR robots are therefore geared to ensure that even untrained staff are able to program some first applications in less than an hour.

But the easier a robot is to use, the more complex is its development. This requires a cross functional development team: Optimal results are only achieved when everybody brings their expertise into a project. This is why Esben and Universal Robots count on great teamwork – between humans as well as between humans and robots.

Esben H. Østergaard

Esben H. Østergaard is chief technology officer at Universal Robots and is responsible for the enhancement of existing UR robots and the development of new products. He holds a Ph.D. in Robotics.

Esben H. Østergaard is one of the inventors behind the UR robots. During his years from 2001 – 2005 as researcher and assistant professor in robotics and user interfaces at University of Southern Denmark, he created the foundation for a reinvention of the industrial robot. In 2005, this led him to found Universal Robots together with two of his research colleagues. Since then, Universal Robots has taken about 65 patents on the technology of the robot. Besides his work as CTO, Esben H. Østergaard is participating in national research projects and he is also an external examiner at several universities in Denmark.

Earlier in his career, he worked as research scientist at USC Robotics Labs in Southern California and also at AIST in Tokyo as a visiting researcher. During his studies in Computer Science, Physics and Multimedia at Aarhus University in Denmark, he focused exclusively on robotics and became world champion in his hobby of robot football in 1998.

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