Mauro Fenzi, CEO of Comau, explains the principles of a new era of automation: open, intuitive, friendly and easy to use, based on human-robot collaboration and continuous innovation. It’s an approach that changes the way of thinking about industrial automation that Comau embraced several years ago.
Tell us about the new frontiers of automation in the Comau innovation plan.
Over the last few years, we’ve been developing an innovation plan with the purpose of changing the concept of industrial automation itself, transforming it into open automation. This means making automation easier and more accessible. It also means less time needed for training operators, and most of all, it means an improved return of investment in any sector in which manufacturing plays a significant role.
We have challenged ourselves to “Keep it simple” and in doing so, we have essentially defined the principles of open automation. We applied it to our own robots first, and in bringing the user closer to the systems, we have made their use easier and more intuitive.
Effective automation may be complex to create, but it should be intuitive and easy to learn.
Our approach to product innovation is very similar to the technology approach behind successful products like the smartphones. These products are inevitably complicated and sophisticated inside, but with a man-machine interface that is both easy to use and tailored to the user’s needs. In short, it’s complex for whoever is designing it, but easy for whoever is using it.
Meanwhile, we are firm believers in the innovation of the business model, and offer ourselves as a partner for educational activities in the field of industrial automation. Our goal in doing so, is a help develop the culture of automation in other companies regardless of whether or not they are customers of ours.
What role do startups play in terms of your strategy and innovation plan?
We follow many startups with great interest and share their commitment to leveraging innovation and prototype development. An important result of this collaboration with some startups is represented by the production of the first series of the more innovative products and technologies. In this way Comau can evaluate the practical feasibility of a project.
Our people have daily contact with startups around the world – from San Diego to Italy – which testifies to the way in which Comau has adapted to the changing market scenario. And I often find myself using Skype to conduct video conferences with “kids” on the other side of the globe who are working in a revolutionary way and developing new products with very low budgets and in a rapid timeframe.
The startups with whom we collaborate form part of our innovation network, and this collaboration is mutually successful because our culture of automation is built around our people – which as I’ve said on multiple occasions are our greatest asset – and our openness and transparency.
For more than four decades, our solutions have influenced the way things are manufactured in a wide range of sectors, including automotive, aerospace, petrochemical, military and energy, to name a few. And in each of these sectors, we rigorously adopt a long-term, strategic approach to innovation.
We closely follow the evolution of the product that the customer wants to launch and develop automation solutions based on the new technological trends that surround it.
Let me give you a typical automotive example. Today, the automotive industry is reinventing its products. Manufacturers are creating increasingly complex solutions that require new technologies and lightweight materials. As a result, automation is becoming a key factor to ensure that these new materials are used properly.
Other sectors however, such as aeronautics and those related to energy (electric motors, batteries and related components), food and beverage and other general industries are increasingly focused on how automation can improve quality, reduce costs, increase productivity and, in short, help them improve their competitive positions.
What is Comau’s approach when working with clients on new projects or in new sectors?
We design and engineer products that are modular, flexible and highly configurable, which can be tailored for each individual customer. As a result, we can offer manufacturers of all sizes and across approximately any industry sectors a solution that speaks to their common denominator requirements while addressing their specific needs. These concepts of advanced automation application allow our customers to develop new business models and quicker time to market.
A good example of this can be seen in the work our Powertrain Machining and Assembly group is doing. Its products are designed to be 70% configurable in their base features, 20% tailorable to a customer’s specific requests and 10% customizable to each particular project. This means that our product can be easily adapted to address unique requirements or production constraints while enabling our Customers to reduce launch times and ensure the highest level of productivity and long-term precision.
In Robotics, on the other hand, we are investing heavily in developing intelligent solutions that combine the high productivity, quality and accuracy of robot-based industrial automation with the flexible, customer-focused production methods of small-to-medium enterprises. This has allowed us to help automate processes that would have seemed impossible or unrealistic several years ago. Here I’m referring to everything from inbound and outbound logistics to various manufacturing operations, and even the automation of delicate processes such as glass, paper and fresh foods
We mentioned renewable energy sources. How is Comau dealing with the new environmental protection regulations?
The new environmental regulations are greatly influencing the industrial world, yet this is happening differently in each country.
More precisely, we are working on the optimization of the existing industrial processes and productive plants. In this way, we are able also to help companies cut their energy consumption, be more efficient, and be more competitive in the market, while at the same time safeguarding the environment.
China is a key part of our developing strategy and it plays an important role for our organization. We have more than 1,000 people and 4 locations in China (one of these is a research center). In the next three years we will likely sell more robots in China than in the rest of the world.
On a more global scale, the constant need to have a shorter time to market compels many of our Customers to build their plants nearer to the end market. This requires that we can ensure the same execution capacity at a worldwide level. Our worldwide network covers 17 countries and 33 offices, and we have learned how to manage global processes as well as integrate them with the local culture. An important part of our employees work in developing countries, which means that we are physically closer to these growing markets than our competitors.