Home Bots & Business Increasing Interaction Between Humans and Robots: ABB’s Fifty Years of Robot History

Increasing Interaction Between Humans and Robots: ABB’s Fifty Years of Robot History

'When companies invest, they want a partner who can fully support them'

by Marco van der Hoeven

This year ABB Robotics is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. Over this period, the company has grown into one of the largest robot providers in the world, offering hardware and, increasingly, associated smart software across various industries. On the eve of this anniversary, which coincides with Vision, Robotics & Motion in the Netherlands, Rocking Robots sat down with Kris Huyck, General Manager Robotics at ABB Benelux.

Kris Huyck, who has worked in the industry for over three decades, has witnessed significant developments. “Initially, robotics was primarily focused on the automotive industry, with automotive customers driving innovation,” he says. “The requirements they set led to new developments among robot builders. Over time, other industries have also started to benefit from these technical advances.”

Human-Robot Interaction

An important trend is the shift from pure production to actual human interaction with robots. “A lack of qualified personnel created a demand for simpler use of robots. This has, for example, led to new programming languages and supporting software tools such as our RobotStudio Suite. Initially, in 1998, there seemed to be little interest in this tool, but over the years RobotStudio has become indispensable because of its many possibilities.”

Virtual World

Another trend Huyck notes is the transition from online programming to an offline approach, where everything is first designed, tested, and optimized in the virtual world before any material is ordered. “This is quite different from the previous approach, where design, testing, and validation often led to frequent failures in the initial stages. Nowadays, everything is tested virtually in advance, even at the quotation stage, so that customers can present a proof of concept without making any upfront investments in hardware.”

Rise of Cobots

The rise of collaborative robots, or cobots, means robots are no longer used exclusively as machines in cages. ABB was the first to present a collaborative robot, the YuMi robot. Huyck explains, “It started as a concept shared with some customers, who were very enthusiastic. This led to the development of a fully collaborative robot that has now acquired a permanent place in our portfolio, especially with companies that use robots differently and have less need for high speed.”

Data and AI

One technical development enabling interaction with industrial robots is the emergence of better sensors, particularly cameras that can determine and influence a robot’s path. This is increasingly done without manual coding, using real-time data from cameras and sensors. Industrial robots are increasingly using this data in combination with artificial intelligence.

ABB conducts its own research into AI. “We have consciously chosen to develop this technology ourselves to offer it as a solution to our customers. By creating that AI layer ourselves, we can better tailor the software to their needs.”


System integrators play a crucial role in ABB’s market approach. “Our partners devise and develop applications based on customer demand and bring these solutions to end customers. Where they ask for a standard solution, ABB has a range of standard products available for partners to offer.”

As a robot developer and builder, ABB primarily plays a supporting role. “The robot is a means to an end, while the application is the ultimate goal. A robot can be used for various applications, such as welding, spraying, or stacking. The system integrators have expertise in their specific domains, and offer total solutions to customers. This ecosystem cannot exist without the partners, and ABB relies on their crucial contribution to delivering projects worldwide.”

ABB remains actively involved in the application of robots in the field. “That is why we have set up several competence centers that, based on market insight, develop new solutions for the future. Each of these global centers specializes in specific areas, such as logistics solutions in Belgium.”


ABB Robotics expects further demand for supporting people in their work and performing some tasks without human intervention. “The shortage of personnel is a major challenge for many organizations. This can partly be addressed by storing essential application knowledge in our systems.”

Robots can use new control cabinets more efficiently, which is important due to the increasing emphasis on reducing the ecological footprint, especially for large end customers. “European regulations also impose stricter requirements on sustainability, so it is crucial that we meet these requirements for our partners and end customers. Sustainability is important to us.”

Partly for this reason, ABB has introduced a robot line in which twenty different variants of robots can be assembled with a limited number of components. “In addition to energy efficiency, we strive to return as much material as possible to the production chain.”

Digital Twins

The much-discussed digital twin also plays a role in robot automation. “Tools like RobotStudio allow customers to explore their project in a virtual world, perform analysis, and even program. The concept of a digital copy is the starting point for design, research, and programming.”

“This design is then implemented on the production floor, where the physical world closely aligns with the digital one. This opens possibilities that go beyond human capabilities, for example in the field of remote assistance to support customers faster and save costs.”


Service is essential. “When companies invest, they want a partner who can fully support them, including training. These training courses have changed from long on-site courses to shorter, specific, and often digital sessions that people can follow at their own pace. This offers flexibility and supports customers when they need it.”

Huyck concludes, “As a company, we collaborate with many different parties, including universities and other companies, to maintain the speed of development. Our partners count on us to provide them with the speed and support needed to offer appropriate solutions. We are in an ecosystem in which suppliers, customers, and partners mutually need each other.”

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