Pig in a Pipe

By Lloyd Graff

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.

Esben Østergaard, Founder of Universal Robots

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?

Share this post

19 thoughts on “Pig in a Pipe

  1. Joe

    Obviously HRC won. Trump is alarmingly ignorant and it showed last night. He basically admitted he doesn’t pay any taxes and took all of the bait that HRC threw at him. He came across as an idiot. I am not a fan of HRC but after the debate it is obvious that she is smart and tough.

  2. Jesse Schelitzche

    I had the same discussion with my wife regarding the lack of African Americans at IMTS. While I honor and respect any work, it was depressing to see all the temp jobs filled with the only African Americans in attendance.

    While I did see a few in a couple booths, it wasn’t enough to even consider it a percent of the population. To your point, while they are present on the shop floors, they need to be present in the boardrooms as well. I think it is less a systemic problem of hiring and more career choices within those groups. My only hope is we continue to attract bright young talent regardless of race, gender, etc.

  3. David

    No contest last night.

    I attended IMTS with our new programmer, a young woman of 28. She was noticeably uncomfortable in the white, 40+ male setting, but she held her own. I purposely avoided the Ingersoll booth the day we visited the tooling pavillion…the strip club stage is an embarrassment to our industry.
    My favorite memory is from later that day. I got stuck catching up with an old friend and she wandered off. I found her later in a discussion of shrink fit tooling with a technical sales rep from a tooling company, also female and right around her age. We all complain about the lack of interest by young people in our industry. Meanwhile we are ignoring half the population.

  4. allen

    The machine tool industry’s in the throes of a change as transformative in its nature as the data industry went through when computers hit their stride.

    Like the data industry the changes are cyclical and dependent on education.

    Customers have to come to understand what’s possible so they can escape the assumptions of the past as does everyone up and down the manufacturing chain. Engineers, materials suppliers, tooling suppliers, sales people, end users, manufacturers are all operating to a greater or lesser extent with historical assumptions. Heck, there are still bags of manual shops out there making money although less and less each year as competition from newer technology, and the people who’ve bought into it, makes life increasingly difficult for manual operations.

    You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.

    With regard to the lack of blacks and women, is there a governor standing in the school house door? I don’t think so.

    That means the reason you aren’t seeing many folks of a darker hue or the female gender in supervisory roles isn’t due racism/sexism. It’s due to the fact that it’s a pretty small club, entry’s not easy even for white men over forty and political correctness hasn’t yet made inroads.

    And your rejection of the situation isn’t particularly rational unless it is due to racism/sexism. I highly doubt it is because talent’s at a premium. Talent that demonstrates supervisory ability is at an even higher premium.

    You really think there’s an industry-wide sentiment that precludes the hiring of black or female employees on the basis of prejudice when those prospective employees could put money in your pocket? Heck, that was a hard line to hold in the Jim Crow south when you had the law and violence backing up the prejudice. Now? I’d guess anyone who passes on a good employee because their skin color or reproductive organs aren’t of the proper sort is someone who’s thought of as a fool and unlikely to stay in business.

    It was a draw. Trump worked it pretty good during the early going but didn’t maintain control during the latter part. Hillary’s smirking may have hurt her although among her base it’s evidence of superior intelligence.

  5. Lloyd Graff

    Some comments on the debate.
    Trump started strong and scored on trade issues, bringing up
    Mexico and China particularly Carrier leaving Indianapolis. Hillary was stiff and scripted. Her rdference to her father’s drapery printing business came off flat and unauthentic.
    As the evening went on Trump’s performance deteriorated. Lack of stamina. He came off self centered and narcisistic. Hillary started to relax, ghough she missed a myriad of chances to humanize herself versus the Donald’s Donaldness.
    As a popularity contest Trump won the first two rounds thdn was dismal for the balance of the bout. The totality of his pefformance was terrible. Hillary barely managed mediocre.
    I could imagine Hillary as President. Trump’s sickening self absorption and lack of sustained concentration worries me immensely about his ability ti be President of the United States, much less head of the Miss Universe contest.

  6. Sophie

    I watched the Debate. It was exactly as I expected. Lester Holt asked questions that favored Hillary’s answers like most of media always does. Most of everyone I know has decided the direction they are voting. So nothing said or unsaid can change these persons at this point. This country is ready for a non-politician in the office. We have had many years of unfulfilled promises and meaningless words. Most everyone I come in contact with is fed up. Trump has the guts to address the elephants in the many rooms. Not PC, but refreshing in this phony world of word play.
    I could never vote for Hillary. She lies constantly and the dishonest treatment of top secrets of our government and endangerment of how many lies in her wide open emails.
    One doesn’t use bleach bit and hammers on computers without something to hide. Obama got her off the hook and many of us now question the FBI as always being impartial. The IRS certainly was very bias recently with no repercussion. The Clinton Foundation’s pay for play scheme is very obvious to most everyone. Remember renting the Lincoln Bedroom while they were in the White House? I guess she was just being a politician.
    Most hard-working Americans are tired of politicians. Time to try another approach. Presidents come and go. The Supreme Court Judges that will be appointed in the next few years will make a difference in all out lives and future generations for a long while.
    Vote wisely!!!

  7. Rod Brower

    On the Black situation we noticed it not only at IMTS but in the Museums, at The Jazz Festival the week before the show and in the Parks, Starbucks ect.
    Very few Whites working any of those jobs.
    I like the fact that the Black people are taking these jobs because it is counter to the belief that they are lazy and are not willing to work.
    There are plenty of Entitled Whites that fall into that group now days because the pay is to low.
    The Debate?
    Might as well flip a coin ( or roll dice ).
    They both could be so much better.
    Why are people so against paying their fair share of taxes?
    With the amount of Money Mr. Trump claims to have made I know my tax bill would have been 39% of it ( because mine was and I paid it ).
    My Guess is he paid 0.
    We all pay higher taxes for people like Him.
    How can all of his followers who ( most are not high income earners ) accept the fact that a lot of the really wealthy avoid paying taxes.
    It is living in this society that has allowed them the opportunity to be successful.
    That building with his name ( very large name ) on it in your city sure looks pretty good though.

    1. Big Al

      It’s not the rich people’s fault; it’s the fault of the Congress for passing laws that the rich people can follow. What Trump wants to do is break up that “good ‘ol boys club” that passes laws that make Congress rich and they are the ones (Congress) that need to begin to live like the rest of us. Trump’s just following the rules that Congress set up. If you or I had the resources, we would do the same thing. You’re just jealous (like the rest of us).

      1. Rod Brower

        You are correct on the first part, but I for one am not Jealous of Donald Trump.
        Most of the really rich folks are no happier than the average person.

  8. Art Santana

    Trump did what he does best; one liners with no substance. That is why he does not have any answers. Build a wall and have Mexico pay for it? tell me how you are going to do that and maybe I will believe you. Fix the nafta and China trade imbalance? Give me a firm detailed plan and I may believe you. etc, etc. HRC did what she does best, half of what she says is a fat lie. And the other half is not true. Did she sound a little scripted to you? there seemed some kind of teleprompter in the first row she would refer to at times. Last night was the epitome of what we have become as a nation, a reality show at it finest. Is not the Kardasians I worry about keeping up with anymore, is Crooked Hillary and Ferdinand, I mean Donald the bull (Y).

  9. Dick Crosby

    I’ve kind of always considered myself a little to the right of Genghis Khan, and I was hoping Trump would cream her last night. The general TV commentary seems to be that he won the first section. i thought he stunk! He was constantly sipping on that water glass, which to me suggested he was up tight as hell. My conclusion, at the end was he missed so many oportunities, frowned so much, and interrupted so much, he blew the whole thing.
    I found myself yelling at the TV, “Shut up Trump!” Today, I hear he took in $18 big ones, and his polling is up.
    What do I know? Better I go back to pushing Iron!
    And shut up! But, Lord, we need to change the direction of this country. Especially with the Court. At this time, it’s got to be with “The Donald”. Wished it was Mike Huckabee.
    Thanks for listening.

  10. John Ryder

    HRC won but not by much. I am the voter that decides elections and can go either way.. I am a moderate and was a republican at one time. Hillary is not a good choice, The Donald is worse. An egotistical greedy billionaire who ridicules a crippled man and a former POW is not fit to be president of the United States. We can live through Hillary’s reign as congress will control her. I am scared ****less of the Donald and how he will handle international affairs and so are a lot of critical thinkers.

    1. Doug S

      Just out of curiosity, what causes you to believe that congress would do anything to stop her? They have been a rubber stamp for everything that obama has done. By contrast Trump has the polical elites on both sides of the aisle foaming at the mouth. He will encounter far more resistance than she will.

      1. John Ryder

        I do not believe Congress has been a rubber stamp. Obama is known as “The do nothing President”. He has been opposed and stopped on numerous issues Although, he did start going around congress. Trump will be worse. Bill Clinton worked with congress.

        My concern is not that congress will keep him in check but that his mouth will endanger international relationships. Also, his attitude with Russia is alarming.

  11. rick

    HRC will raise taxes on everyone and run us deeper into debt.
    65% estate taxes. the passing of the fruits of ones labor will only be for the chosen elite political class.
    Not for family businesses or farms!

    I am scared of the Supreme court justices she will nominate citing international law and decimating the few shreds of a constitution we have left

    FIFTY THOUSAND OVERDOSE DEATHS and you want her to keep the borders open and unsecured?

    not to mention the entire illegal population driving down real wages.
    did NO ONE learn or understand economics 101?
    supply and demand.

    as Jefferson wisely said:
    “you get the government you deserve”…

      1. Rod Brower

        I look at it like a Tsunami as opposed to a train in the Trump.
        We need to think about after the wave rolls through what it will take to clean up.
        That applies to both of the candidates.
        We already know what Her mess will be like.


Comments are closed.