LOS ANGELES — Today is the grand opening of OnRobot A/S’s 6,000-sq.-ft. U.S. research and development office here. The Odense, Denmark-based company makes grippers for collaborative robot arms and has grown rapidly in the past year, moving its office in LA.
The Robot Report spoke with Nick Wettels, director of R&D at OnRobot, about his experiences and the direction of the growing company.
“Just over a year ago, OptoForce, Perception Robotics, and the old On Robot merged to form the new OnRobot,” Wettels recalled. “Those three companies realized that each had pieces that the others were missing. It was a natural collaboration, creating a global company with footprints in Asia, Europe, and North America.”
Since then, OnRobot has also acquired Purple Robotics and the assets of Blue Workforce. The merged company now sells electronic grippers, force/torque sensors, and tool changers.
“We have two offices in Denmark, one in Budapest, and the site here in LA,” said Wettels. “We’re learning what each is good at. As we’ve worked together, some of the things that have come out of the wash are robot integration and new robot R&D.”
“I used to be the CEO of Perception Robotics and am now R&D director at OnRobot,” explained Wettels. “I also serve in the U.S. Navy Reserve and bring my leadership and technical experience.”
Staying in LA
“We were located at the LA Cleantech Incubator, and it was time to leave the nest,” said Wettels. “We also needed a dedicated facility rather than a shared space to continue developing and producing OnRobot’s Polyskin and Gecko grippers.”
What does Southern California offer to robotics developers and startups such as OnRobot?
“There’s a lot of talent here, there’s proximity to USC and Caltech, and we’re close to the aerospace industry and a lot of field offices for the big Japanese robot makers,” Wettels replied. “One of the main things for this office is integration with robots from FANUC, Kawasaki, Nachi, and Yaskawa.”
“Another is that we have a good working relationship with JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory], and we’re working on an active contract with NASA,” he said. “We hope to license more technologies in the future.”
Improvements and integration
The Gecko gripper was developed in part to help robots grasp objects in outer space, where conventional vacuum grippers would not work.
“We’re making incremental improvements to the Gecko adhesive and microspine grippers on the micro and nano scale,” Wettels said. “Also, for porous objects and PCB [printed circuit board] assembly, a lot of end users are trying to get away from compressed air because of the cost. The Gecko gripper can pay for itself in seven to eight months.”
“Cleanrooms are another environment where pump-driven vacuum grippers are frowned upon,” he said. “A big focus at OnRobot as a whole is to look at different applications and bundle end-of-arm tooling with a robot for the application.”
“The gripper market is largely focused on niches, such as Soft Robotics with its compliant grippers or Schunk with parallel grippers,” said Wettels. “There are still a few things to be desired in terms of ease of use. Our strategy is to be a one-stop shop for everything collaborative, including multiple grippers and sensors.”
“It’s non-trivial to get a FANUC package from us,” he claimed. “Most integrators go with one robot. If we can make our tool easy to use, we can make our products as plug and play as possible. You can just plug in a FANUC robot and our products and have the same electromechanical and software interface.”
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Expanding with the industry
“We’re doing development here on both collaborative and non-collaborative industrial robots,” Wettels said. “We’re working with partners, distributors, and other robot companies in getting our products to work with their robots and identifying new applications.”
“We’re also still developing pressure-sensing Polyskin technology,” he added. OnRobot’s Hungary office is looking at integration with newer, lightweight cobots, according to Wettels.
At the moment, OnRobot is looking more at partnerships than at hiring. “We’ve just moved into the new LA office, and we’re in the process of figuring out our roadmap for the next year,” said Wettels. “Once that’s determined for our core technology and products, we’ll see which offices get more staff.”
Nancy Wettels says
Little did I know when those slips of paper were put in the encyclopedias that Nick would be part of an International company!! I always knew my children would contribute to the world. Love and Blessings from Mom.