Despite what movies such as “Avengers: Age of Ultron” depict, robots are not taking over the planet—but they are on the rise.
On Wednesday, Universal Robots agreed to be acquired by Teradyne (NYSE: TER), based in North Reading, MA, in a deal worth up to $350 million. Universal Robots is based in Denmark and has its U.S. headquarters in Stony Brook, Long Island.
Word of the deal came as the RoboUniverse tradeshow in New York wraps up Wednesday, where Universal Robots was on display alongside Rethink Robotics, whose founder Rodney Brooks gave a keynote speech (see slideshow).
Teradyne develops automatic test equipment to check semiconductors and other electronics. Universal Robots makes lightweight robots for industrial uses. Its latest product, the UR3, can handle smaller payloads, up to 6.6 lbs., for precision tasks at worktables or countertops. The UR10, the largest of the company’s robotic arms, can handle payloads up to 22 lbs.
During a conference call, Teradyne CEO Mark Jagiela said the acquisition offers his company opportunities to get into the collaborative robots business. “This is an exciting, emerging market undergoing rapid expansion and should show growth for decades to come,” he said.
Furthermore, robots from Universal Robots could be used to automate manufacturing for Teradyne’s systems test customers, Jagiela said. The deal is for $285 million cash, plus up to $65 million more if certain targets are met. Universal Robots is profitable, and on track to generate some $60 million–$65 million in revenue for 2015, up from $39 million in 2014. The acquisition is expected to close in the second quarter, and Universal Robots will be run as a separate business unit.
The proliferation of collaborative robots, which can operate alongside people in production settings, was on the mind of Brooks, chairman and CTO of Boston’s Rethink Robotics, during his keynote on Tuesday. Rethink developed Baxter and Sawyer, collaborative robots which can work on production floors.
Collaborative robots are designed with safety features—from software to physical designs—that allow them to operate with people in close proximity. In contrast, heavy industrial robots can be dangerous for people to stand nearby when in use, Brooks said. “If you go into an automotive factory body shop, it’s like Dante’s ‘Inferno,’” he said. “The lights are out, just sparks from the welding. There are no people.”
He said robots are becoming increasingly important for a variety of roles. For example, they can take on work that factories need done when the labor pool runs thin. “People don’t want shitty jobs when there’s alternatives, and jobs in factories are shitty,” Brooks said.
However, he also said there need to be ways for robots to operate in tandem with humans. Installing heavy industrial robots can be expensive, Brooks said, and may include adding sensors, cameras, software, and bringing in consultants to handle the programming. “The cost of installing a robot could be five times the capital cost of a robot,” he said.
He foresees controls, operation, and user interfaces becoming simpler for robots used in homes as well as for production purposes. “I sometimes joke that manufacturing is creeping, or being dragged, into the late 20th century,” Brooks said. “It’s not really the 21st century.”
Other changes he expects for robots and production industries will come from additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing. “People buy our robots, then have 3D printers to print specialized fingers for specialized things they want to grab,” he said.
Brooks believes robots could also take on certain helper duties for the world’s aging population. Rather than wait for human caregivers to help the elderly with such things as getting in and out of bed, robots could be constantly at the ready to lend assistance. “There’s going to be a tremendous pull on robotics to let the elderly stay independent longer and have control of their lives longer,” he said.