If 2012 and 2014 IMTS shows were about the arrival of 3D printing, 2016 was the year of the robot. It seemed like everybody was talking about automation and robotics. Prices are coming down and ease of use is advancing. I had the opportunity to interview Esben Østergaard, the head of Universal Robots of Denmark. The company was sold last year to Teradyne, a technology heavyweight in America, which so far is adding marketing muscle but not interfering with the creativity that made the company. Mr. Østergaardis is now a very rich guy after the firm was sold for $285 million plus earn-outs if it hits profit and sales projections. His big splurge after the deal closed was buying a grand piano. But a few years ago he was living on milk and crackers in the basement of a university after his $200,000 in seed money ran out. He and an associate were desperately trying to build their inexpensive, easily programmed, out of the box robot for industry so they could convince a venture capitalist to back them.
He said the all-out commitment cost him his marriage, but he built his prototype, got some funding, and today he is running a company with 330 employees and trying to hire 10 more people each month.
Esben is tall and wiry with the athletic build of a cyclist. He was born in Iran of Danish parents. He built his first robot when he was 5 years old.
His parents were working in the Philippines on a water project in Seibu City. His folks came home one day complaining about a problem of getting cables from the beginning of a pipe to the end. The locals were tying the cable to the leg of a pig and then trying to cajole the oinking 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.
His family ended up back in Denmark. Esben Østergaard’s career took another leap in college as his robotics team won a contest associated with soccer’s World Cup in 1998. After graduating college and beginning work on a PhD he headed for Los Angeles for work and study. In 2006, back in Denmark, he started his company on a shoestring in the college basement office.
It all began with a pig in a pipe.
For a show coming on the heels of a brutal report on 2016 machine tool sales, people were surprisingly upbeat at IMTS this year. I did focus on areas that are doing comparatively better than the norm, rotary transfers, Swiss type machining, robotics and 3D printing, but the mood was pretty positive considering the discounting that is widespread in the industry. Part of the comfort level comes from the big cushion that Asian and European builders have baked into their pricing formulas because of the strength of the U.S. dollar compared to their currencies. A 10% discount to an end user will barely move the needle in Tokyo or Cologne. The home office wants to move the iron.
During my two days at IMTS the only black people I saw were McCormick Place employees. I saw thousands of people in the booths and the aisles, but not one black person with a badge. The irony is that there are lots of black people working on the shop floor in America and many have well-paying jobs, but they are not decision makers who own businesses or have a lot of influence on buying choices.
It is ironic that the politicians tout manufacturing as the vehicle to bring good jobs to the African American community. My conclusion is that for many reasons black people are disinterested in manufacturing and white supervisory people have been unwilling or unsuccessful in bringing them into key roles. This is more a commentary than a criticism. There is a huge disconnect between upwardly mobile young black people and the manufacturing community. IMTS is a dramatic manifestation of the gulf.
The absence of black people in manufacturing’s elites was stark. The absence of women was obvious also. There were many women with badges on the floors of the show, primarily in marketing and administration, but very few in sales, engineering or management. We can attribute this to the legacy of educational patterns as well as gender choice and bias. The practice of hiring women for IMTS to be eye candy has diminished over time, but is still employed by some firms. Tsugami had a beautiful young model trolling the edges of its booth, seemingly engaging the curious men quite successfully.
IMTS is a bastion of white men over 40. It probably always will be. It’s a part of America I love because it’s so constant and reliable and safe. But I reject it, rationally, because it seems so backward and yesterday compared to the bigger country I live in every day.
Question: Who won the debate last night?