Asia, the hub of world manufacturing, has some rethinking to do. There are two elements that might potentially change the face of manufacturing worldwide.

One is 3D printing which has been hogging the limelight of late. It features in Gartner's latest top 10 predictions on global IT market.

The other is a technology that might impact the manufacturing sector in a more significant and immediate way-it is the rise of small, flexible, reusable robots for industrial work.

Denmark's Universal Robots (UR) is one such company that makes these light-weight, flexible, and affordable robots. Interestingly, even though they have only recently entered Asia (their China office opened in 2011), they are expecting a phenomenal growth in the Asian market.

Impact of robotics on manufacturing

"You can say that there are certain challenges manufacturers are facing with labour and operational costs," says Shermine Gotfredsen, Business Development Manager, Universal Robots. "A lot of guidelines are being imposed on them. To look at the whole picture and to move ahead and to be competitive, they are looking at ways to be more cost competitive as well as productive, meaning to say that they want to produce more in the same given amount of time or with the same given amount of resources they have and the only way to do it is by automating. And if you look at how you can grow the businesses, it will be also in a way whereby ...if you start to automate and become productive, cost competitive and produce better quality product, then you can keep your manufacturing local. You don't have to move it to countries offshore and thereby making the people lose their jobs in the local market. In that sense, you can save jobs and be more competitive and actually create jobs in the long run but in other functions."

This could be good news for Europe or America where traditional manufacturing has been on a downslide. But how about the workers in manufacturing in populous countries such as China, India, and other South East Asian economies? What will happen to them?

We will need to move them to the skilled labour category, says Gotfredsen. So the trend will be to re-train these people who are doing repetitive tasks day in and day out (to operate machines) and equip them with other skills.

Robotics and 3D

"I don't see any direct connection between the two technologies," says Enrico Krog Iversen, CEO of Universal Robots, about robotics and 3D printing. "3D printing and that way of manufacturing offers a lot of potential. I don't think it will have a lot of impact on the robots because no matter where the parts come from, they still need to be handled and assembled and that's what we do well with the robots. I think it will be a long time before you start seeing ...you don't print a complete two wheeler with a full tank ready to go on the road. I don't see that just around the corner yet."

"The difference between traditional robots and our robots is the level of collaboration that is facilitated at this moment," says Gotfredsen. "If you have a conveyer running different processes or tasks, maybe 10 men standing there doing different tasks, so the robots can actually go in and do certain parts of the process to automate it. So you have a mixture of tasks being handled manually and being automated. You can see a line of robots working side by side with human being which has never been seen before."

The Rise of Universal Robots

Universal Robots, based in Odense, was founded in 2003 by three researchers (Esben Østergaard, Kasper Støy and Kristian Kassow). They wanted to make robot technology accessible to all. They wanted to make unique industrial robots that could automate and rationalise all industrial processes, and were affordable, flexible, user-friendly and safe to work closely with.

At that time, a flexible robot weighed an unwieldy 150 kg-"a huge robot for small applications like putting pepperoni on a pizza," says Iversen in jest. "That's when the founders said we can do this in a better way, in a smarter and more flexible way. They discussed the idea for a couple of years and then in 2005 they decided to form the company. The first working prototype was ready in 2007."

In early 2008 the three founders ran out of money. "Also they came to the conclusion that they were experts in robots but they were not experts in management, financing, manufacturing, marketing and so on," says Iversen. "They started looking for investors and partners. That's when they found an equity fund in Denmark and this fund by coincidence found me and together we decided to invest in the company."

Iversen had a previous business that he had sold, so he had some funds to invest. He joined in 2008 as the fourth employee of UR and became the company's CEO. That's when the whole transformation of the company started. He wanted to take the company to a global scale right from the start.

"The product roll out (of robots) started in late 2008 and gradually the company has gone global region by region," he says. "Today we are available in six continents and we have about 200 partners in over 50 countries."

"The operations have been profitable since late 2010 and we have set some pretty ambitious objectives for this year," he adds.

Universal Robots in Asia

"We have been around in Asia for about a year," says Gotfredsen (even though the company officially opened in China in 2011). "We cover countries like China, India, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Thailand. Because of our flexibility, a broad range of industries feature our robots such as in electronics, automotive, medical home appliances."

According to Gotfredsen, Thailand is one of the potentially biggest markets for robots because of the automotive manufacturing base. "We also see Indonesia as an emerging market. We also see a constant demand for this kind of automation in Singapore, just maybe in slightly different manufacturing setups as well as industries," she says, sounding positive about the market for her robots in Asia.