Robot Industry

Flying over Kuka’s nest

Kuka is marshaling its forces to become robot market leader in China. Picture source: Reuters

The head of the Germany’s Kuka is a fan of science fiction films but his ambitions for the world’s fourth-largest robot maker are anything but a fantasy.

After Kuka’s takeover last year by the Chinese appliance maker Midea, Till Reuter, who has headed the German firm since 2009, thinks Kuka can become the No. 1 robot maker in China, boosting its current 15 percent market share to 25 percent.

He also thinks the company will be able to introduce a “household robot” within three years, and help Midea with the automation of its own manufacturing facilities.

Robots, in short, are coming, and along with digitalization and artificial intelligence will be massively disruptive in societies around the globe.

“How can men and machines live together ... possibly at some point become one?”

Till Reuter, CEO, Kuka

This why Mr. Reuter, when he saw “Ghost in the Shell” on a recent transatlantic flight, thought the film went beyond the thriller plot of Scarlett Johansson as a crime fighter who is partly human but mostly cyborg to pose some of the big questions about robotics.

“It is the topic for the future per se,” Mr. Reuter said in an interview. “How can men and machines live together, indeed, possibly at some point become one?”

The question is an important one for Kuka, he said, not least because of the disruptive impact of robots on society.

“The human soul, intuition, creativity don’t let themselves be transferred in the film,” Mr. Reuter said. “But displacements will take place, which we as a society have to discuss.”

As robots take over menial tasks, the gap between the people getting the top jobs and those with little or no qualifications will continue to widen. “We see this already today in the United States,” Mr. Reuter said.

Intensive training and education will be needed to counter this trend, but the German CEO doesn’t exclude the possibility that some form of universal basic income might be necessary to support those left behind.

“We have a social peace here at home, that we seldom consciously acknowledge,” Mr. Reuter said. “If new sharp edges or imbalances develop from disruptive innovations, we have to cushion them.”

Midea acquired Kuka last year for more than €4 billion ($4.7 billion) in a controversial transaction that raised concerns in Germany about the transfer of technology. Mr. Reuter suggested such concerns were passé in a rapidly evolving global economy.

“We are a global firm, which because of globalization can also grow strongly here at home,” Mr. Reuter said. “Our strategy also pays off for Germany.”

The German manager sees robots moving into numerous positions interacting with humans, from taking on hospital chores to helping manage “smart houses.”

Robotic versions of vacuum cleaners, pool cleaners and lawn mowers are already helping out with home chores. A robot platform capable of managing different applications on a modular basis might be the next step, Mr. Reuter suggests.

In any case, he thinks Kuka will have a household helper robot in the market within the next three years.

It is the kind of product that will enable Kuka to reach its goal of becoming the top robot maker in Asia. Mr. Reuter adds: “In this regard, Midea is a giant accelerator for us.”

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