Interview with Sysaxes
Founded in 2014 by Erik Pourtau and Eric Rosello, SYSAXES is now the benchmark French distributor for major companies. We have been working with Sysaxes for a few years now, and were lucky to get with one of the co-founders, Erik Pourtau, for a discussion about Universal Robot, Sysaxes and the landscape of computer vision in the manufacturing industry.
Hello Erik, thank you for taking the time for this interview with inbolt. To begin, can you tell me a bit about your background and how Éric Rosello and you came to create Sysaxes?
Both Éric Rosello and myself are co-managers at Sysaxes. We met back in 1999 while at PSA (Peugeot Société Anonyme). From my window, I can glimpse the landscape of Sochaux-Montbéliard. We're only five minutes away from Peugeot's historic headquarters. Éric was an employee at PSA, and after my studies, I landed my first job as a contractor there too. That's how we got to know each other and immediately started working in the robotics sector. We were on the client/user side, and we both worked on robotics projects, specifically in the bodywork sector related to car welding.
A few years later, Éric was hired by a robotics integrator to work on new projects in that field. A month after, I joined the same company. So, we went to FIRAC to work on the robotics integration side. Back then, almost all our robotics projects were for the automotive industry.
In 2008, I decided to take a different direction and moved to Belfort to explore new opportunities, notably at General Electric. I quickly realized that this sector didn't captivate me as much. I then proposed to my former boss to develop a new robotics branch within his company. He agreed, and I started working on this new initiative.
I had somewhat lost touch with Éric until we ran into each other during a bike ride. A few days later, we both attended a conference in Besançon on the future of robotics. It was at this event that one of the attendees told us about an innovative little robot from Denmark. Intrigued, we did some research and discovered Universal Robots. We immediately understood that this was an opportunity not to miss.
We were almost exclusively focused on the automotive sector, about 99%. We struggled to sell robots outside of the automotive industry. While these robots were excellent, and still are – especially when you need to produce the same item for several years, such as producing millions of automotive parts – they weren't suited for other sectors, especially smaller businesses. When we came across the UR robot, we thought, "This is something we need to explore." We sent an email to the robot's creators, outlining who we were, our skills, the challenges we faced, and emphasized that we only sold robots to the automotive industry. We met them in January 2011 and left with a robot, determined to drop everything we were doing and focus solely on this.
Shortly after, I invited Éric to join the company I was working for to participate in this new venture. That's how our journey with Universal Robots began.
Had you not yet started the company?
We were employed by a company in the suburbs of Belfort. That's where we began our operations, starting modestly. In 2011, we sold 7 robots. By 2012, that number rose to 29. In 2013, we sold 49. After that, our sales began to grow exponentially.
By the end of 2013, our robotics activity stood out within the company, which wasn't really specialized in that area. So, we proposed to our boss the idea of establishing an independent company, Sysaxes, in which he would also be a shareholder. We set up the company, acquired the business assets, and invited him to become a shareholder.
That's how Sysaxes came into existence.
If I remember correctly, we were officially registered in February 2014. Sysaxes is now just over 9 years old, and we've been working with Universal Robots (UR) for about 12 and a half years. That sums up the start of our story.
Does Sysaxes work with other robots today?
So, in terms of robotic arms, we work exclusively with Universal Robots. However, we do have other products. What significantly changed with UR is that we moved from one robot model to eight different ones today. But what truly evolved is everything that surrounds it.
For instance, one of UR's groundbreaking ideas was to innovate by designing a smaller, simpler robot than others, making it user-friendly for almost anyone. The aim was to democratize robot usage. They remain somewhat technical but are much easier to handle. We could introduce these robots into small businesses with two or three employees, which was previously unthinkable. We still sell them in the automotive industry, but we're no longer heavily reliant on that sector—maybe 15 or 20% of our sales. The rest is spread across all industries, regardless of company size. We truly cover a vast range of sectors.
To date, we've sold around 2,000 robots in 12 years.
Another commendable initiative by UR was the launch of the UR+ partnership program. Any company, known or unknown, developing products suitable for UR can join. The objective is to keep the robot relatively user-friendly while integrating accessories, like a camera in your case. The whole setup should remain easy to use. The creation of this ecosystem, of which we're now distributors, was indeed a smart move.
What are the other components that Sysaxes sells within the UR ecosystem?
Primarily, we have clamps and suction systems, among others. This can also include glue guns, sanders, screwdrivers, etc. However, we also utilize many vision systems. There's an array of accessories, leading me to a trend I find relevant to our discussion: We are selling fewer standalone robots and increasingly complete systems—a robot with additional equipment.
This trend is quite pronounced. A robot by itself holds little value. It's like an arm. If you have a nail to hammer this weekend, your arm alone won't suffice; you'll need a tool. The same applies to the robot. A robot by itself is useless—it's a "pseudo-machine" since it can't do anything on its own.
When we were in the automotive industry with traditional large robots, integrators always had to design a tool tailored to the client's needs. This remains the case today, even with UR robots. If a client calls me tomorrow with an entirely new project, we'll need to design a tool. There will always be an integrator responsible for this part of the creation.
However, we now have electric clamps capable of gripping objects of any size, from 0 to 50 millimeters wide. We are offering more and more accessories. Sometimes, an accessory can be pricier than the arm itself. There are accessories for every little thing—from a simple rubber piece to shield the screen to gripping devices costing €20,000.
If our product range can meet the client's needs, we boost our average basket size. The current trend is our average basket size increasing, thanks to this entire ecosystem.
Does Sysaxes connect integrators with your clients, or does it see itself partially as an integrator?
In the very beginning of our journey with UR, we were the first to sell them in France, and they were naturally unknown. We did everything, from prospecting to commissioning. We provided after-sales service and everything that followed. However, from the second year, when the business began to grow, we started having integrator customers. We then decided not to integrate anymore, as we would compete against our clients. Moreover, integrating, let's say, 29 robots, is a massive task. We didn't want to have a company of 50 people right away. So we chose to remain distributors, which we still are today.
But having a real background in robotics, we know a bit about what we're talking about. We can support both the end client and the integrator in defining solutions. We like to get technically involved in new projects to suggest how certain things could be done. With our experience, we can now say: "This, we don't know how to do," but "that, we can do with this robot, this accessory, etc."
Once we've discussed the topic with the client, either they decide to do everything themselves, or we entrust the project to an integrator, or we recommend an integrator to the client, or the client already has their integrators and says, "OK, that seems feasible, thank you," and gives the project to the integrator who will provide the solution.
Today, does your client profile know or not know how to integrate their robot?
Regarding our clients' profiles, they usually know if they can integrate the robot themselves or not. When they contact us for the first time, they might precisely tell us what they want, or they might be less certain. We usually have three types of clients: the one who knows they can do it, the one who knows they can't, and the one who thinks they can. The latter is the hardest to handle. But generally, we can determine the type of client we are dealing with from the first few questions.
If we believe the project has potential, we quickly ask how the client sees the next steps. If we think an integrator is needed, we involve them from the start. Sometimes we step back if we trust the integrator and believe everything will go smoothly. Sometimes, we stay more involved. It really depends on each case.
What is the sales cycle for Sysaxes, from when a client contacts you to when the solution is implemented? Are the sales cycles different depending on the type of client?
There's no set rule for the time needed to finalize a robotics project. It depends on many factors like the type of project, the client, the integrator, etc. Some projects can be concluded quickly, even with an integrator, while others might require more time for consideration, testing, and finalizing the offer.
More than for industrial robots?
It's essential not to pit the robots we sell against "industrial robots." We primarily sell our robots to the industry, and even if their operation and characteristics differ from traditional industrial robots, they are still used in industrial applications. We prefer the term "traditional robot" to differentiate them. We shouldn't oppose cobots and industrial robots. We are industrial; we sell robots to the industry all the time.
One of the unique features of our UR robots is that they are sold without options, which differs from the traditional approach in the automotive sector where customers can customize their robot with a range of options. This simplified approach has the advantage of not confusing clients who often buy their first robot. Plus, not offering options has another significant consequence: the delivery time. A traditional robot might have a delivery time of 6 months, or even 18 months in the current context. Our robots, on the other hand, can be delivered in 2 weeks, as we don't need to customize production for each order.
This approach has been a successful gamble, especially with the current delivery challenges. Our robots are all identical and can be delivered within days. This necessarily impacts the sales and installation cycle and, as a result, the overall project cycle, which is significantly shortened.
We've had projects that went very quickly, with a quote, an order the next day, delivery, and billing two weeks later. Of course, the integrator's work takes longer as they have to design, program, and install the robot. But for us (Sysaxes), and for you (inbolt), as a provider of additional components, the project cycle can be relatively short.
Do you think vision is truly necessary? You mentioned earlier that vision is indeed present in many of the companies you work with. In your opinion, is this a technology that is becoming more widely used, or is it just gaining popularity because it's more in vogue than before?
Your perspective is intriguing. Indeed, vision in robotics can introduce an added layer of complexity. It can be influenced by numerous environmental factors, such as lighting, dust, etc., and requires specific expertise to be effectively implemented.
For robots handling specific parts, using grippers might sometimes suffice if the part dimensions are known and remain consistent. This approach is simpler and more reliable, as an 80-millimeter-wide part will always stay that width. Additionally, the UR robot has a built-in force sensor, which can help detect objects through touch. This is often adequate for many use cases.
However, if parts aren't always placed in the same position, and if the robot needs to search and locate them, then vision becomes essential, especially when time is of the essence. The "probing" process, where the robot attempts to touch the part to determine its location, can be time-consuming. In such instances, a vision solution is often required. If using vision becomes inevitable, it's crucial to collaborate with the right partners who have the necessary expertise in this field.
Would you say that in France, the industry is "small" enough, so to speak, that networking plays a significant role?
Yes, because at the end of the day, we all somewhat know each other. I guess it's the same in all industries. We all form one big family. And like in every family, there are people you like more than others, but that's life. Everyone has their microcosm. All sectors are like this. When you go to a robotics fair, you always see the same faces, except for newcomers, like you, whom we gladly welcome.
These are relatively small communities, so good news spreads quickly, and bad news even faster.
When we started selling UR, we were in this position of new products, new business, and a new company for us, in a way. Naturally, at some point, we had to make sales.
Looking back, it's easier for us to say now, especially with an established company and the experience from all the robots we've sold: “No, this isn't suitable for a cobot. Here, you should use a traditional robot.” Because both types of robots are still needed today.
I believe in areas like vision; you really shouldn't rush things. Tests are almost mandatory to reassure the client, but also to reassure yourself and the distributor who will naturally sell your system. We have another system we sell, and we never sell it without a test. Even though the company has been around for ten years and we sell a lot of them, not one sale goes without a test. Because vision and vibrations come into play. Whenever you're dealing with the "intangible," so to speak, when it's not black or white, I think it's better to take your time.
Why did Sysaxes decide to remain loyal to UR rather than branching out with other robot brands like ABB or Fanuc? You've stayed very faithful to UR. Is there a particular reason for this?
There are two main reasons we couldn't.
Firstly, it's related to our relationship with UR, who might not appreciate us selling other brands.
The second primary reason is that all the robot brands that have been around for a long time don't have distributors. They sell directly. For example, if you buy a FANUC robot tomorrow, you won't purchase it from a local distributor but directly from FANUC. They don't have this distribution layer, so there's no room for us. Only newcomers, those entering cobotics like UR, need distributors. Currently, we're delighted with our partnership with UR. We've sold a significant number of robots. I believe UR still holds a significant edge over its competitors, even the most renowned ones. Clients who test other major cobot brands aren't always convinced. As always, each brand has its strengths and weaknesses.
Back then, UR was genuinely the first in the market. That's why we chose to collaborate with them, and today, they remain a significant player in cobotics. They've also managed to surround themselves with partners like you, which is one of UR's strengths today. They offer a product with many advantages, in my opinion.
We can address clients' issues more efficiently, I believe, than many of our competitors because we have many partners around us doing fantastic things with digital technology.
They really achieved something by establishing themselves in a sector that didn't previously exist. As you mentioned earlier, Sysaxes is a stable company, which is fantastic. Concerning the next steps, is there something you're looking forward to in the future? Whether it's expansion overseas or into new areas.
Currently, there aren't any specific plans regarding overseas expansion.
Right now, our goal is merely to follow the trend. That might not be the ideal term, and it may sound derogatory, but the shift towards cobotics is a massive challenge in itself. Every day, something new occurs. Daily, a partner like inbolt releases a new product. There's always something underway. Not a week goes by without someone reaching out to us on LinkedIn or another platform. This requires time and resources. We've recently hired quite a few individuals to manage our continually growing business.
Even though more and more players are entering the cobotics field, the market continues to grow, so our workload keeps increasing. We aim to stay relevant to our clients in the cobotics sector, and that's quite a challenge in itself.
This demands a lot of resources. Clearly, our development is always cutting-edge; we stay updated with all the new arrivals. That was also one reason we chose to work with UR about 12 and a half years ago. While working with clients in the automotive sector is great, it does become monotonous after a while. With our smaller robots, we're always working on varied projects.
We see all the possibilities, and there are still many. Our growth will mostly come from the further development of cobotics in France, as many people haven't even seen a cobot yet. There's still a lot of ground to cover. Most of our focus will be on this.
Our growth strategy involves expanding in terms of infrastructure to further increase our activity. We're keen to grow our revenue, as there's still tremendous potential. In the grand scheme of things, we haven't done much yet. Things are changing rapidly. It's quite fun, actually. We're enjoying ourselves.
Indeed, it's exciting to be part of such a booming sector, witnessing so many new developments, especially from a human perspective.
Speaking of trends, have you noticed any shifts since you joined? For instance, are there types of companies that approach you more often now, or types of systems or demands that weren’t common before?
Yes, a major trend, as I mentioned, is that we are increasingly selling the robot with additions. It makes sense, as 12 years ago, nobody knew about robots. Now, they are becoming more and more familiar, and we receive more and more qualified requests, meaning that the client specifically tells us: "I want this, plus this, plus that."
There's a growing trend for customers to have an increasingly detailed shopping list. Now, when we receive a request, we try to check, to speak with the client. Is this really what is needed? This trend can be attributed to people learning over time, and researching a lot, especially online.
Another advantage of having competitors is that the more people work in collaborative robotics, the more cobotics is discussed. Thus, the more clients talk about it, the more they research. Of course, there aren't just benefits to having competitors, but that's definitely one of them. Clients sometimes know what they want.
And the other major trend, unfortunately or fortunately, is the dwindling labor force. More and more, people need to say "I want a welding robot because my production is increasing and/or my employee is retiring, and nobody is interested in doing the job he does today." It's a broader and more political issue, but the good news is that we might have solutions.
For the 12 years we've been working with businesses ranging from SMEs to large corporations, we hear the same narrative every day. There's a labor shortage, and that's where UR can step in with its UR+ products.
How do your clients find you?
We rely heavily on Google AdWords for our SEO. It's a very effective strategy. In addition to that, our reputation, fame, and word-of-mouth play a significant role in our visibility. After selling more than 2000 robots, our presence is increasingly noticed. People discover our products at trade fairs, online, or through our customers or suppliers. But many are still unfamiliar with our brand.
When they start looking for automation or robotics solutions, many don't know these exist or don't even think of the need. For those seeking solutions, the internet greatly facilitates the process, though not everyone necessarily stumbles upon our company.
Our job is to ensure we are well-listed.
Now, if someone is interested in automation, for example in perfume bottle manufacturing, they just need to go to YouTube or other platforms to gather information, a scenario not as straightforward a decade ago.
Regarding France, there aren't many companies like ours. Compared to other industries, the robotics field isn't saturated. There are a few major brands, maybe four or five, and some newcomers like us. It's a rapidly growing industry, yet relatively exclusive.
Of course. Do you have any final remarks you'd like to share?
I’d like to conclude with my encounter with inbolt. I met Albane, Rudy, and Louis at the Industry Fair last year, I believe. As for robotic vision, clearly, I'm not a fan, I've told you that before. But when I saw what inbolt was doing, I immediately felt you were onto something truly innovative. That's why we're interested in inbolt and why we try to support you as much as we can. Because, finally, we see something that somewhat convinces us.
In terms of vision, I strongly believe in your solution. I like the idea, I like the team, and I think that for once, we're onto something innovative.
Now, you're in the mindset of saying "Yes, let's look into it," before selling your solution to just anyone. You're not going in every direction aimlessly. It's crucial because we've had some setbacks. It inspires trust.
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