By JOHN REVILL in WSJ
Dec. 26, 2014
PHOTO: ACTION PRESS/ZUMA PRESS
ZURICH—A German brewer established in the 1790s has found a 21st-century answer to increasing profitability: robots
Nine years ago, Badische Staatsbrauerei Rothaus AG was struggling with production bottlenecks that weighed on its profits. Workers couldn’t package and crate the company’s beer quickly enough to stock bars and supermarkets, prompting customers to buy other brands.
Since introducing an ABB Ltd. IRB7600 robot in 2005, however, the company has sped up its delivery times, particularly at peak holiday periods. The robot does the heavy lifting, sorting through 30,000 bottles an hour, allowing the company to reassign its human employees to its bottling and packaging operations.
“We wanted to increase production and efficiency” across the company, Chief Executive Christian Rasch said on a recent Wednesday as a robot painted in the company’s signature traffic-light red stacked cases of beer behind him. The brewery, which hasn’t changed its recipe in more than two centuries, was so impressed it bought four more ABB robots.
ABB, Fanuc Corp. and other robot makers are counting on Rothaus and a variety of small and medium-size companies to fuel the next leg of their growth. Historically driven by automobile companies and electrical-and-electronics makers, robot companies are finding many smaller businesses want to automate dirty and repetitious tasks that were typically handled with good old-fashioned elbow grease.
In Murten, western Switzerland, a local bakery is using robots to bag pretzels, grabbing them off the production line while they’re still hot. In the U.K., a Yorkshire brickworks has robots removing fired blocks from the kiln. In a New York hotel, robots have begun serving as porters, delivering luggage to guest rooms.
Data on the use of robots at smaller companies is hard to come by, and automobile and electronics manufacturers remain the industry’s biggest customers. But the International Federation of Robotics, an industry association, said sales to all industries excluding the big buyers rose 10% in 2013, with growth coming from the metal, food-making and chemicals industries. By comparison, sales to the auto industry rose 4%. Sales of robots rose 12% to $9.5 billion, while sales of robot systems, which includes conveyor belts and other machinery, were $29 billion.
Robot makers are trying to encourage small companies by making their machines easier to use. Many are concentrating their research-and-development efforts on streamlining interfaces so that novices feel comfortable operating them.
‘The vision is for us to make robots as simple to use as a smartphone.’
—Per Vegard Nerseth, who runs ABB’s robot division
Zurich-based ABB is working on a robot that customers can program by moving the arms to perform a desired action, the same way a parent might guide a child assembling blocks. The company, which expects to bring the new robot to market in April 2015, wants to eventually build one that doesn’t require an instruction manual.
“The vision is for us to make robots as simple to use as a smartphone,” said Per Vegard Nerseth, who runs ABB’s robot division. “A lot of the smaller companies, such as bakeries,” he said, “may have qualified bakers, for example, but not lots of robot technicians.”
Japan’s Fanuc overcame skepticism at Marshalls , an Elland, England-based building-supply company, by offering the potential customer a trial robot for six months. Marshalls used the robot to perform a chore that was unpopular with its human employees: placing concrete slabs in an oven and removing the blocks after they’ve been baked.
After six weeks, Marshalls could see the Fanuc R2000iB robot was making a difference and placed an order for five. Since then, it has bought more and now has 63 robots toiling at its 11 plants.
Chris Sumner, who runs Fanuc in Europe, estimates roughly 80% of Fanuc’s European customers are small and midsize businesses, and the number is growing by 20% every year. Small businesses generally buy one or two robots at a time, but Fanuc is trying to encourage more automation: The company runs training classes for customers considering a robot and set up a dedicated hotline for its smaller customers.
“Small companies are concerned they will not get the service of the bigger customers,” Mr. Sumner said. He says Fanuc can devote more resources to servicing smaller enterprises because many bigger companies have in-house engineers.
Kuka AG , a German robot maker, has about 7,500 orders for robots in Germany, roughly a fifth of which are for smaller projects, according to Joerg Winter, who runs sales in the country. Many of those customers are small and midsize businesses, a customer segment that is growing, he says. Kuka robots range in price from €13,000 ($15,800) to €200,000.
At Rothaus, the German brewer, robots have helped the company speed up packaging and overcome staff shortages, a problem in the sparsely populated Black Forest region.
Before the robot—nicknamed Roger-Tor after the manager of the packaging line—was introduced, employees were unloading 24-bottle crates of beer and repackaging them into more-popular six-packs. Over the course of a day, workers would slow down and become more prone to dropping bottles.
Now, the output has climbed to 250 million bottles a year, four times its output 20 years ago. Sales reached €80 million and pretax profit hit €20 million in 2013.
The company has since installed robots at its filling plant. The robots lift kegs for cleaning and then fill them with beer. The robots then sort the full kegs, which weigh 139 pounds, for delivery.
“Nobody wants to do this boring, heavy work,” said Mr. Rasch, the chief executive. “We couldn’t imagine living without a robot.”