Mario Selic has been designing KUKA robots for 25 years, giving them their unmistakable appearance. He has already won more than 70 design awards. In an interview, the Augsburg-based designer talks about his thoughts in advance, when he is involved in the process and what his philosophy is.
Mr. Selic, when you design a robot, what is your goal?
“It is important to me, on the one hand, to portray the robot as a sympathetic helper and, on the other hand, to demonstrate its power. Even when I first designed for KUKA, I did not see the robot as a martial machine. For me, the robots are rather light-footed and embody a decathlete who performs outstandingly in a wide range of disciplines. Just like the robot. And that is what I want to represent with my designs.”
How did you get this job in the first place?
“As an independent design office, we already participated in competitions back then, even though there were not as many as today. When we won an award, the media covered it. That’s how KUKA became aware of us and invited us to a pitch, in other words a bidding contest between various designers. We won the race – and in March 1995 we received our first order from KUKA”.
What was that about?
“About the handheld programmer, which was used to control and adjust the robot. To be honest, I was a little disappointed because I thought I could get right up against a robot. But the handheld device was very important to those responsible at KUKA. We got to know the work of the engineers and were able to show that we can translate the technical language into design. The order for the first robot design followed shortly afterwards. It was the beginning of a very successful collaboration that continues to this day.
How difficult was it to find your way in the engineering world?
“It went quite quickly, after all I had already had a technical education during my studies and was able to make sense of the terms. Of course, the cooperation had to take shape first. In the same way that I had to think my way into the engineers, they too had to internalize the basic rules of design. Today, engineers are also very good designers.
Design was a novelty in the industry at the time.
“That’s true. None of KUKA’s competitors addressed this topic at the time, so we see KUKA as a pioneer in this respect. Our common understanding was – and still is today, by the way: professional products need a professional appearance. This quickly set us apart from the market, and KUKA robots had a unique selling point. Today, all other companies also work with designers in this field”.
To what extent have the designs changed?
“Technology has evolved, of course, it’s become finer and more powerful. That’s why we’ve also continued to adapt the appearance of the robot. In the beginning, my goal was to make the robots look as alive as possible with many soft design elements. Since a few years we have been making them a bit more angular to stand out more from the competition. Nevertheless, we still maintain a certain momentum and make sure that the transitions between the individual links are as smooth as possible. This also optimizes the robot’s power flow.”
At what point are you involved in the development process?
“As soon as the technical requirements and the specifications, such as workspace, payload and drives, have been established, I will get involved. Together we discuss the concept and then I start making design drafts. I used to do this with pen and paper, but today everything happens on the computer. I give a rough shape and show the engineers my vision, which we then work out together. The entire development process can take anywhere from a few months to two years, depending on how complex the machine is. Until the moulds are created, I am involved in the process. Then I’ll disengage and only rejoin if there are any major changes during the test phase.”
Do you include customer needs in your considerations?
“The so-called customer journey plays a role especially in small robotics and human-robot collaboration. Here we make sure that the ergonomics of the machine fit and that the safety distance between the moving parts is large enough to avoid endangering people. With industrial robots, on the other hand, you have to pay less attention to such aspects, since they operate in closed cells anyway.
You have already won design awards this year. What makes KUKA robots so out-standing in appearance?
“On the one hand, there are the clear lines and light edges, which are not visually impaired or even interrupted by screws or drill holes. On the other hand, the KUKA designs focus on the essentials. We leave out everything superfluous and stretch the machine so that in the end a well-trained athlete is standing there, only to return to the image of the decathlete. While the athlete must not have one gram of fat too much, we also try to reduce the mass of the robot. On the one hand, because every kilogram of material costs money, on the oth-er hand, because this makes the robot lighter, more agile and optically more dynamic. This is precisely what makes robots from KUKA so special“.