Thomas Visti, vice president of Denmark's Universal Robots, was hit head-on by his company's signature UR5 robot at least 20 times during its North American debut this year. There were no fences present to protect him and no gear to soften the blows, but Visti would not have so much as a bruise the next day to show for it.

The crowd, however -- many of whom had taken turns programming the robotic arm's path on its tablet-style controller -- were much more permanently impressed. And that was exactly the effect Visti was after as he stepped in the way of the swinging robotic arm time after time.

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On this side of the recession, robots have become a fairly common sight in factories across the U.S. According to the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), there are some 225,000 robots at work in U.S. factories today, putting the nation second only to Japan in terms of robot usage. However, this number represents only a fraction of the total possible market.

"Many observers believe that only about 10% of the U.S. companies that could benefit from robots have installed any so far," RIA's President, Jeff Burnstein notes. "Among those that have the most to gain from robots are small and medium-sized companies."

That market, says Visti, is exactly where Universal Robots is aiming.

"It's been known for many years that these smaller companies have demands for automation in general and also for robots, but no one has really had a final product for them," he says. "The whole idea of developing this company was to look at the demands of those companies and develop a robot to meet them."

What he found from these companies, he says, was the need for flexible robots that are easy to program and that can work side-by-side with workers without the need for fencing -- objectives throwing himself in front of his quickly-programmed robots amply proved.

Universal Robots UR5 in action Because the UR5 robots cannot push with more than 150 Newtons, they can operate alongside human workers without safety fencing or protection for about 90% of applications.