The silent champion of robotics

  • Münsingen

Little-known Swiss company Stäubli is one of the leading manufacturers of industrial robots

Stäubli Robotics is growing rapidly. Its devices have a range of uses, from Tesla to hair transplants.
Daniel Hug - NZZ am Sonntag, 7/17/2016

Standing on a green meadow at the edge of the village of Münsingen (BE), the view sweeps across the cloud-topped Stockhorn mountain range before alighting on the new building nearby. You would hardly expect cutting-edge automation technology in the middle of all this pristine nature. But here, in a modern Insys commercial building, is where industrial robots supplied by Stäubli are assembled into automation systems for leading companies in the medical technology, automotive, pharmaceutical and watchmaking industries. Stäubli robots operating at lightning speed on six axes are integrated into complex systems that are custom-made for clients.

Hermann Stäubli started up in 1892 in Horgen with a repairs workshop for textile machinery. Later, Stäubli produced his own textile machinery and over the years specialized in components that controlled the looms. “We built what you might call the engine for looms,” says Gerald Vogt, head of the robotics division. Stäubli expanded in 1956 to incorporate hydraulic, pneumatic and electrical couplings in order to reduce their dependence on the cyclical textile business. Other applications such as photovoltaics and high-performance connectors for electric cars were added to the mix, forming a business unit that today achieves more than CHF 100 million in sales per year. Stäubli’s most recent division is the fastest-growing: In 1982, the Horgen-based company went into robotics, selling industrial robots to American firm Unimation (a portmanteau of Universal and Automation). The people at Stäubli recognized the potential of this business and, in 1989, acquired the entire Unimation company from the then owner, industrial giant Westinghouse.
With this move, the Swiss company took the actual robotics pioneer under its wing: Thanks to inventor George Devol (patent for programmable industrial robots in 1954), Unimation built the world’s first robotic arm in 1959 and supplied customers such as carmaker General Motors from 1961. In 1992, the first Stäubli industrial robot that can move along six axes was introduced. A key factor in success is reliability. “Industrial robots are fast-moving devices that oscillate at high speeds and sometimes need to last 20 years,” says Gerald Vogt, describing the challenges they face. Stäubli manufactures a lot in-house in order to ensure quality. “Here, we differentiate ourselves from the competition – we are the only ones who make the robots’ gear units ourselves,” says Vogt.
In 2004, the Swiss family-owned company (with fourth-generation director Yves A. Stäubli on the board of directors) expanded its position by taking over the robotics division of competitor Bosch Rexroth in Germany. “Stäubli’s acquisitions are never driven by financial concerns, but with a long-term, strategic focus,” says Vogt. In 2007, it acquired Deimo in Brescia, which develops the controllers for textile machinery and industrial robots.
Thanks to these targeted acquisitions and internal growth, it succeeded in moving up to the big leagues. Today, its competitors are Kuka (the German company currently being taken over by a Chinese group), ABB, Mitsubishi and Yaskawa. Stäubli robots are used by leading manufacturers in the watchmaking industry, but also by Tesla – the electric car manufacturer uses robot tool changers made by the Swiss firm.

Thanks to sensors, cameras and electronic controllers becoming ever cheaper, the application range of robots is set to grow significantly over the next few years. Global robotics sales rose by 12% last year, according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR). “Stäubli, however, has grown faster than the market,” says Vogt. Today, the entire group of companies – headquartered in Pfäffikon, Switzerland, and still owned by the Stäubli family – employs more than 4,500 people and achieves more than CHF 1 billion in sales. Robotics make up an estimated 20% of that, i.e. more than CHF 200 million. The industrial robots are, by the way, not manufactured in Switzerland but in Faverges, France, near Annecy. Stäubli opened a production plant making textile machinery there in 1909.
Stäubli’s strength lies in small robots that can work quickly and accurately, and carry loads from a couple of hundred grams up to 190 kilograms. Another of their specialties are the encapsulated robots for both dirty and super-clean manufacturing processes, such as are required in the food or semiconductor industry as well as in medical technology. “One firm, which has completely automated blood analysis in France, bought almost 300 of our industrial robots, for example,” says mechanical engineer Vogt.
Their most important market, however, is the car industry and its suppliers. “The increased use of sensors and electronics in the car industry has also increased the demand for our industrial robots,” says Vogt. Completely new applications, such as hair transplants done by robots (see box), are also of interest. Will robots take our jobs away from us? “Studies have shown that unemployment rates rose slowest in countries that use the most robots in recent years,” say Vogt. This is apparently because companies were able to retain jobs that would otherwise have been outsourced to Asia. “Robots can even create jobs,” says Vogt. “Our customers who use industrial robots are more successful than their competitors – and all of them employ a lot more people than they did five years ago.” Robots in businesses create more intelligent jobs, yet more is required of the people. Certain jobs are also simply unattractive, he says. “Who wants to stand in a 5 degree refrigerator cutting meat?” asks Vogt.

In his opinion, Germany and Switzerland are so economically successful because they have continually improved production processes and actively sought innovations. Vogt, who lived for five years in the United States and is a dual citizen of France and Germany, advocates openness. “We export around 85% of our machines, primarily to Europe but also to North America and China.” Sometimes is it enough to transport them from Faverges in France to Münsingen.