Handy Grippers The Robot's Touch

Wherever robots are assembling cars or carrying out science experiments, their hands most likely come from a small, remote village in southwestern Germany. Schunk has conquered the world market for gripping systems, and is eyeing rapid growth.
Germany's Schunk, the world leader in robotics gripping system, expects double-digit growth over the next years.

Whenever production robots in Germany join two components or skillfully fit a machine part into a narrow slot, they most likely use their Schunk hands to do so.

The mid-sized firm from the Southwest is the global market leader for robotics gripping and clamping systems. “This combination is our unique selling point,” said Henrik Schunk, industrial engineer and head of the family business.

Like many of the thousands of Mittelstand companies that make up the backbone of Germany’s economy, Schunk is highly specialized and dominates its niche.

Whenever robotics firms like Kuka, ABB, Fanuc or Universal Robots deliver their robots to production sites, they come without grippers. These hands need to be custom fitted for the robot’s specific purpose. That’s too costly for the robot makers, according to Bernhard Langefeld, an industry expert with consultancy Roland Berger.

Instead, specialists like Schunk tailor-make the hands for optimal grip, to ensure the robot is able to fit a workpiece into a machine to the very millimeter, or receive and hand over a part. This can unburden workers in modern factories of monotonous labor and heavy lifting.

Latest projections see the use of mobile service robots in industrial manufacturing double over the next four to five years.

With its 2,700 employees and annual sales of €380 million ($408 million), Schunk pales next to German engineering giants like Bosch, Daimler or Porsche.

Yet, in its field it leads the pack, and even went all out to publicize its work in a big TV spot in 2012. The gripping specialist hired former German national soccer team goalkeeper Jens Lehmann as its brand ambassador. The commercial emphasizes Mr. Lehmann’s hands as his most important assets – just as Schunk grippers are for many industrial robots.

“We gave gripping a face,” Mr. Schunk said of the ad. The 44-year-old manager is a huge soccer fan and it was his idea to get the former national goalie on board. It was an unconventional move for a Mittelstand company that mainly markets its products to business clients in engineering.

Schunk produces in Germany, Switzerland, Italy and the United States. As is typical for a German Mittelstand firm, its headquarters are in a small rural town. Lauffen am Neckar is about a 30-minute drive north of Stuttgart, the capital of the southern state of Baden-Württemberg.

Its modern manufacturing hall also sports a showroom, displaying three robotic arms, equipped with Schunk gripping systems. A gripper with two wide fingers is docked onto a multi-unit arm by Danish robotics firm Universal Robots. It’s meant to pass parts to a processing machine.

Another prototype in the exhibition is still being trialed. Its unique selling point? Whenever the human handler gets too close, the robot stops instantly. The aluminum hand is equipped with sensors measuring the human “aura,” the technician explains. In other words, the changes in electric fields when a person gets close. The high-tech gripper’s brain is about the size of a smartphone.

Mr. Schunk said intelligent gripping systems are necessary wherever robots work directly with humans without barriers or other protective devices separating them.

But the firm’s pride is the “Schunk five-finger hand.” What looks a bit like a horror movie prop is useful for complex scientific experiments that need to be repeated precisely over and over again. With 9 engines and 20 joints, it mimics the human hand quite nicely. And it has a surprisingly gentle handshake.

Schunk offers more than 4,000 different gripping systems, and another 7,000 products in other divisions like clamping technology, many of them to automotive companies. But numerous other manufacturing businesses with handling and assembly needs are among their clients too.

The chief executive said the latest projections see the use of mobile service robots in industrial manufacturing double over the next four to five years. In other sectors, such as in hospitals and care facilities, use might triple, he added.

And all these robots needs the right touch, and therefore the right hand, to do their job. “Over the next four to five years we thus expect growth in the double-digits,” said Mr. Schunk, who also chairs the European robotics industry association EUnited Robotics.

Schunk is a family business in its third generation. Mr. Schunk’s grandfather, Friedrich Schunk, installed his first lathe in a vacant cowshed in 1945 and his first big contract came from sports carmaker Porsche. Back then, Schunk supplied the brake discs for the now classic Porsche 356. Mr. Schunk’s father, Heinz-Dieter Schunk, was the one to venture into gripping systems. In 1982, he noticed clumsy grippers at an industry fair, and thought he could do better. He found the right engineer for the job at that very same fair, and started planning the aluminum gripping system right away. The “Schunk industrial hand” was born.

Today, Mr. Schunk is looking into the digitization of gripping systems. Cooperation between humans and machines in manufacturing is becoming increasingly important, he says. And the firm has the money to grow. With an equity share of 60 percent, “we can finance innovations on our own,” Mr. Schunk said.

And while critics claim that automation destroys jobs in industrial production, Mr. Schunk said that it actually helps workers. “By now, we ourselves have 40 robots in our factory, and yet our staff almost tripled since 2002,” he said. Robots increase productivity, according to the CEO, which drives up profits that in turn can be reinvested in new products and jobs.

Firms that think they can do without automation will be crowded out, he said. “And then all the jobs are gone.”

A version of this article first appeared in Die Zeit, a sister publication of Handelsblatt Global. Dietmar H. Lamparter has been covering companies, markets and writing about management issues for Die Zeit since 1991. To contact the author: [email protected]