Germany’s biggest industrial robotics company is working on consumer robots

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You might not have heard of Kuka, but you’ll almost certainly know its products. The German firm is one of the world’s top manufacturers of industrial robots, and its robot arms are instantly recognizable thanks to their signature orange livery. But in the future, Kuka’s robots might become an even more familiar sight, with the company saying it’s now exploring the world of consumer robotics.

In an interview with The Financial Times, CEO Till Reuter said the change was being pushed by Kuka’s new parent company, Chinese home appliance maker Midea. “Midea is not doing any robotics or automation, so Kuka is automation for Midea,” Reuter told the FT. “And they are very well connected to the consumer industry. So together we want to do consumer robotics.”

Midea bought Kuka last year for €4.5 billion. The Chinese firm makes a wide range of products for the home, including air con systems, washing machines, ovens, fridges, and more. It’s not clear what sort of product Midea is aiming to produce, but Kuka’s expertise in automating heavy-duty physical tasks suggests the companies would be looking beyond simple “home-hub” robots. Instead, they might set their sights on more complex robot assistants, able to help with tasks like looking after the elderly. Robots like these are under development in a number of countries, including Japan, which faces the challenge of looking after an aging population.

Building a robot designed to work closely with humans would fit Kuka’s evolving interests, which have moved from just static industrial robots, to smaller bots that work side-by-side with people. These include its iiwa range of bots (the name stands for “intelligent industrial work assistant”) which are designed to give factory workers “a third hand.” Kuka told the FT: “We come from this direction to the consumer market; Midea comes from the other direction and we meet in the middle.”

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