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RJB - Blog Entry 29th July 2019 Remembering Dr Wolfgang Kölbl (1947 – 2019) One of the leading lights in laser vision for the welding industry, Dr Wolfgang Kölbl, has recently passed away at the age of 72. Wolfgang was born in Austria just after the second World War. Following school, he joined the Austrian Army, rising to sergeant as a specialist driver. Later in life, he took great pride in his high-speed driving and enjoyed scaring his colleagues on high speed Autobahn jaunts to trade shows in Düsseldorf or Essen. After leaving the army and following his marriage to his English wife Mary, he came to the UK and managed simultaneously to both learn English and get a degree in Physics from London University. He had a strong interest in nuclear physics and got a place on a DPhil programme at Oxford University. His interest in physics continued throughout his life, including experiments on nuclear fusion in his garage.
At the same time as Wolfgang was completing his thesis in Experimental Physics, Peter Davey was leading an R&D project on vision-guided robot welding, originally intended for the UK auto industry. Peter then cofounded a company then called Meta Machines Ltd as a spin out from the university project and recruited Wolfgang as his very first employee in 1984. When I joined Meta at the start of 1985, Wolfgang was a key man combining dashing off to Europe on sales calls with detailed and often passionate technical discussions. From our current viewpoint of having smart phones with powerful processors, large memories, great touchscreens and several megapixel cameras, it is hard to imagine the environment for machine vision systems back then. Meta had a VAX minicomputer in its own special room used for software development, with the target software being loaded on to EEPROMs to be inserted into VME rack CPU boards. There were a lot of acronyms in those days that we don’t use much now. It is true to say that the early Meta products were pushing the boundaries of what was possible in several different areas, and a result, selling them was not easy. But that was Wolfgang’s job and one that he relished.
One of Wolfgang’s early successes was a machine for welding rocket nozzles for the European Ariane space programme. Meta took on the job of building the complete robot welding system. This project definitely pushed the boundaries at the time and faced many challenges. After intense effort, the system worked very well, to the extent that it was later replicated both in Europe and in China.
Wolfgang’s involvement was significant enough that he was named as one of the co-inventors on the patent describing the original system. Having German as his mother tongue, Wolfgang was ideal for the key market of Germany and spent a lot of time there developing relationships with the likes of Cloos and Kuka. He also became involved with the DVS and for a while chaired its standards committee on sensor interfaces. “Meta” was subsequently sold several times and as a result went through multiple transformations, many of which involved Wolfgang in some way. As part of this, Wolfgang set up his own companies in the UK and Germany, mostly in the general area of advanced sensor guided welding. He had an interesting time in Canada where the company he went to join had forgotten to arrange a work permit and so he was able to indulge one of his other interests of canoeing for several months. Wolfgang re-joined what had become Meta Vision Systems in 2003 and enjoyed working successfully as Director of Sales before retiring in 2014. Thanks to his long experience, which he often talked about, and his naturally friendly personality, he was always willing to engage with other staff members, including most of us now at Oxford Sensors. Wolfgang was a unique character combining high intelligence, an open mind, boundless energy and enthusiasm with great bonhomie. He will be sadly missed by all who knew him.
RJB - Blog Entry 6th July 2019 Robots & Sensors on Display at The 2019 Chinese Welding Show Last week saw the 24 th annual Chinese Welding Show from the 25 th to the 28 th of June. Confusingly called the “Beijing Essen Welding Show” but these days never held in either of those places, this year it was in Shanghai.
One of the major differences in approach between China and the US is with respect to copying. Some Silicon Valley companies apparently still seem to have an almost gentlemanly approach to copying while in China it’s a very different matter. At the show, one of our Chinese competitors came by our stand to mention that I have been their teacher, unknown to me, of course. Hmmm. Our booth was adjacent to the Korean pavilion and one of their leading manufacturers of small welding carriages had totally enclosed their booth, with just a few relatively uninformative photos on the outside. To get into the booth and see their equipment, you had to get past a gatekeeper. One of the big European equipment manufacturers had done basically the same thing in a much bigger and more stylish way. There is so much information available on the internet now, even in the welding industry, that I’m not sure controlling the entry of visitors to your booth is tremendously effective.
All in all, we were very glad we chose to invest the time and money to go the show and we expect to see some concrete results. Next year, the “Beijing Essen” show will be in Shenzhen, which is obviously a very dynamic and vibrant city although perhaps one not usually associated with the welding industry. It should provide for another interesting opportunity.
Oxford Sensors had a stand in hall E1, one of eight vast halls, all filled to capacity. What started as a largely domestic affair twenty- four years ago has become a major event in the welding calendar with visitors from all over the world, we even bumped in to previous customers from South America.
Our pre-show expectations were not high, especially with a sluggish Chinese economy (by historic standards) and the ongoing trade war, and so we were pleasantly surprised by a good level of serious interest, not inconsistent with previous shows. The way of doing business in China is not only different to a traditional western approach, but it has also changed in some respects over the last five or ten years, becoming more professional. Something that hasn’t changed is the rapid pace of business. Customers expect projects to be executed very quickly. One of the features of the show in previous years has been the large number of stands devoted to welding power sources. By some estimates, there were three thousand power source manufacturers in China not too long ago. This year, the emphasis seemed to be on welding automation, with robots and sensors being the new boom area. What seems to happen is that any perceived opportunity gets seized upon and receives investment quickly. Some of that money comes from local government, and so the outcome is a lot of similar regional startups and brutal competition. With the importance of cost in the Chinese market, this then produces a race to the bottom, and eventually to a high proportion of company failures. However, the ferocity of the competition means that some very efficient battle-hardened companies do well. What partly explains the changed emphasis is that the Chinese government is promoting a huge push in AI at the moment and robots and sensors are two of the areas that can easily be linked to that initiative for funding.
By chance, I had picked up a copy of the book “AI Superpowers” on the way out to the show, which takes a look at the likely future development of AI in both China and the USA. The book is very well structured and beautifully written. While not about the welding business per se (who would write about such old-fashioned stuff these days?), it does paint a very accurate picture of new business in China and how it has become quite different from “normal” Western practice. Unless you have been to China recently, and I mean within the last two or three years, it is hard to appreciate how quickly things have changed. From my experience with a background in both AI and welding, I found the author’s views to be accurate and highly recommend it.