In the films, robots are often shown as a threat, frequently getting out of control as they seek to dominate the human race. The reality, as Blue Ocean Robotics Chief Strategy Officer Claus Risager outlines, is that the whole point of robots is to bring improvement to the health and quality of life of humans
Good day, Mr Risager! It’s lovely to speak with you again and we’re grateful you chose to spend this time with us. How are you liking the new year so far?
The new year has started with a number of quite big orders for new customers for all three robots. However, I can’t disclose more about these.
The new year has also meant a big change for me personally, as I decided to step down as the CEO and take a new role in the company as the CSO – Chief Strategy Officer. I will remain on the board of directors and the executive board.
You had quite a career before setting up your own company. A lot of technical entrepreneurs go on to study business management to acquire business skills. How did you acquire yours?
When I worked for A.P. Moller-Maersk years ago, I enjoyed being part of their leadership education programme, which was a combined practical and theoretical education.
You’ve been working with robots since 1988. A generous amount of disruptive technological trends have emerged since then. How have you maintained your interest in robots even after all this time?
My passion is really when our robots create value for the users in terms of increased productivity, better working environments and users’ health, as well as better quality and quality of life for the users. Effects like this create real value for the users and for their employers – value that can transform lives to be more meaningful, more rewarding and healthier. So, for me, it’s not the technology as such, but more what it can do for humans that motivates me. That’s also why we, as part of the Blue Ocean Robotics logo, say “– for humans”. We are really passionate about creating robots that bring value into people’s lives.
Blue Ocean Robotics has successfully carried through the various phases of robotic automation, from idea and design to development and commercialisation. As the CEO, what have you sacrificed to get here?
Over the nine years I have been the CEO at Blue Ocean Robotics, I have probably been working 70-80 hours a week on average. I have always prioritised my family and Blue Ocean Robotics at the top, but there has been little time for friends, hobbies and similar. I don’t regret anything – quite the opposite – but clearly I have made some sacrifices here and there.
Have you had any surprising insights when your robotic systems were deployed? For example, how did the “real world” deployments differ from expectations going in?
There are a lot of interesting surprises from the deployment of robots. I think the most important thing is really what it takes to make sure robots of the kinds we are building are well integrated into the customers’ workflows. That takes a lot of effort and much more than you would think. And it is not a one-time activity, it’s ongoing.
Your company aims to “free robots from their safety cages” and let them interact directly with humans to foster a more beneficial relationship. What does that mean in terms of new opportunities for existing robotic installations?
Maybe the most interesting thing about making service robots that interact with people and operate in open environments is that the technologies applied are, to a large extent, reusable across a number of different types of robots and that this again opens up the way for many new types of applications and robots to be created in the future.
How do you preserve the “human element” in your robots?
That’s relatively easy, because all our robots are designed with the single key purpose of being an efficient tool for a user. So everything is centred around what the user is doing today and how the robot can become an efficient tool in the future for the user to have a better work life and do the jobs better. Therefore, the human element is directly embedded and is a core element in our robots.
Your company obviously solves a real problem by making robots smarter and safer to work with. How long do you think it will be before the next generation of robots is making this “add-on“ obsolete and what would that mean for your business?
I don’t see this work as being an “add-on”. I see it more as being necessary in order to make robots so successful that you are able to fit as perfectly with the users, the surroundings and the task at hand as possible, while of course ensuring full safety and reliability. For every type of robot you create, you are going to consider exactly these three elements – users, environments, tasks – in order to succeed with the robots. I don’t think this will ever change, but the tools we use get smarter and smarter, which enables us to make the robots gradually faster, better and more cost-efficient.
What’s on the horizon for industrial robotic solutions?
Although it’s been a while since I spent much time on industrial robotic solutions, I would still dare to predict that the coming years are really focused on the collaborative robots, but also, in particular, how production workers – not engineers – can easily assemble robotic production cells and integrate all components physically, electrically and software-wise, while still being able to set it up for a specific task to be done. More advanced tools are being developed all the time in this area and this paves the way for more flexible or even adaptive manufacturing, while still achieving a high degree of productivity and efficiency. At the same time we are also overcoming an increasing problem of shortage of human resources and, in particular, of people with skills at engineer level.
Healthcare has never been more crucial than it is now. Hospitals have to look at the overall costs of treatment, reducing the length of hospital stays, and reduction in complications as the major selling points for robotic technologies. What can be done to reduce the cost per operation of using robotics?
One good example is our UVD Robot. which disinfects, for example, operating theatres and reduces the spread of infections. Most people do not know that every time 16 patients come to the hospital, one of them acquires an infection there and, on average, spends another nine days at the hospital being treated. This is extremely costly and often painful for the patients. In fact, more than 250.000 patients die from such infections in the US and EU every year. So it is quite a severe problem and robots can help solve it. More generally, robots are part of the solution to overcome shortage of labour and increase the quality of various processes at the hospital.
The UVD Robot 3G, also known as the UVD Disinfection Robot, is the world’s most advanced UV robot to date. It recently won a Good Design 2021 Award. What was the team’s initial reaction when they heard this news?
Our team is always super-excited when we win an award and this was also the case for the Good Design 2021 Award. In fact, we have won more than 25 international awards for our robots over the past three to four years and we are all proud of this. The only thing that outcompetes these awards is the positive feedback we receive every day from patients, hospital staff and users of the robots. The fact that our robots save lives every day and make life so much easier for so many people is really motivating for the Blue Ocean Robotics team.
But your work isn’t limited to the medical sphere. Blue Ocean Robotics has been lending its expertise to, and creating services for, the hospitality, construction, and agriculture industries, as well. Can you elaborate on this more?
Our biggest market by far is healthcare and, in particular, hospitals. But the service robots we make can deliver automated services to other industries as well. UVD Robots, for example, are also widely used in the pharma industry to reduce the level of pathogens in certain parts of the environment at a pharmaceutical production facility.
Blue Ocean Robotics is also nominated for numerous awards at the Green Product Award 2022 and BOLD Award. How does it feel knowing that the good your work does is being recognised?
We are super-excited about this and very humble as well. We are just proud of and very satisfied with the fact that our robots are doing good things for people all over the world.
As CEO of one of the world’s most successful robotics companies, Mr Risager, what keeps you awake at night?
During the last year or so, the shortage of components has also led to reduced quality of these components. While this is a global phenomenon, it has in some cases given us problems that ended up with malfunctioning robots. And some of these were not caught by our extensive testing procedures and therefore these robots ended up with some of the customers. In these cases, I have been very emotionally affected, because it means everything to me and to the company to deliver the best-quality robots in the world and to deliver high value to our customers. Experiencing disappointed customers due to technical issues can keep me awake at night until we have solved these problems again.
In our previous interview, when asked how you defined success, you stated “customers clearly stating that our robots give value to them”. Is this still your definition today?
Absolutely. We are obsessed with our customers and the success and value our robots bring to them.
For more than 30 years Claus Risager has been working with robot technology and has with his establishment of Blue Ocean Robotics created a company that focuses on developing robot technology with the purpose to help solve some of the biggest challenges in our society. Claus Risager is former center manager of the Danish Technological Institute’s Center for Robot Technology with a Ph.D. in Robotics & Artificial Intelligence.