Machines with finesse


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 3 2016)

Robots are on the rise all over the world. Experts in the field speak of it as Industry 4.0. Google and Facebook have become fierce competitors in the development of artificial intelligence whereas Kuka Roboter is a leading pioneer in the field of robotics and systems engineering. All innovations of the Augsburg company are aimed towards the integration of man and machine. CEO Stefan Lampa in fact believes that in due time, human and robot will cooperate as extensively as they will walk hand in hand. 

Mr. Lampa, robotics and artificial intelligence are forming a fully networked world. There are sparks of a new revolution we are beginning to notice in our daily lives. Which industries today employ most robots and why there?

In robotics, the automotive industry traditionally is a pioneer and this goes for Industry 4.0 as well. Its automation solutions are absolutely state of the art and its lead in human-robot collaboration is exemplary. Next comes the electronics sector as one of our most important markets. Qualitative, reliable robots are urgently needed to satisfy an ever increasing demand for new products. Thus an extremely high demand leads to ever faster development cycles and ever shorter product life spans, both of which require highly efficient manufacturing. This has to be supported by automation and IT networks in order to guarantee flexibility and performance. With labour costs rising in Asia, automation remains a significant long-term cost-saving factor.

Which markets of automation are currently underdeveloped but on the rise?

In all industries and market segments there are so many examples of companies which have had little to no experience with robotics that it would be impossible to name them all. However, we are convinced automation will steadily increase everywhere. Developments in the course of Industry 4.0 and the resulting prerequisites for competitiveness are yet irreversible and more and more obviously noticeable. And you can see clearly that many countries which were not that highly industrialised so far or would not have been counted among the pioneers are now opening up. 

Which countries are leading in robotics and what sets them apart in terms of competencies?

If we start from the number of installed robots, Asian countries – particularly China, Japan and South Korea – are still far ahead, closely followed by the USA and Germany. What they all have in common is that they focus on high technology and have played pioneering roles – with China being the exception to the rule. The People’s Republic has made one of the biggest jumps in recent years and truly caught up. The production of highly technological goods in often large quantities has suggested long before Industry 4.0 production would require automation.

What particular role do robots play in Industry 4.0?

Typical of Industry 4.0 is the network of automated processes in cooperation with IT. Robots are highly flexible production elements, capable of collecting production data and exchanging these with IT systems. Production processes are becoming ever more efficient and systems can respond quickly to individual customer requests. According to Kuka, the future belongs to smart factories as they will be replacing the dark ones. New robot systems will be sensitive, mobile and will indeed cooperate with people hand in hand. This will generate entirely new possibilities in production. Flexibility and efficiency derived from greater digitisation and automation will be a guarantee for competitiveness and the preservation of jobs that by robot-based automation have become more ergonomic.

In 2014, Kuka’s robot LBR iiwa (intelligent industrial work assistant) redefined the relationship between man and machine. What sets it apart?

It is lightweight, sensitive, resilient, precise and flexible, and its mechanics and driveline are aimed at industrial use. Its complex assembly tasks can be automated in a way previously impossible and have therefore paved the way for new applications in service and medical robotics. One may add to this that lightweight robots are predestined to work with people. They offer a third hand to operators and there is no need for anything like a protective fence between them and their living counterparts. In all its seven axes of direction, LBR iiwa has joint torque sensors which will react to the slightest external forces. This is both unique and safe, as it guarantees collision protection.

LBR iiwa makes for a smart factory as it is able to learn from its human colleagues. How does this sensitive technology work?

A sophisticated system of sensors enables it to perform not only pre-programmed sequences, repeatedly reeling off the same, but also to respond to its direct environment in various ways. It can avoid collisions with humans and autonomously find installation positions or inaccurately indicated built-in components in pre-programmed tasks whereas its torque sensors enable it for new tasks. The robot can easily and quickly be navigated like a guiding hand and does not require any programming skills on behalf of its operator.

How will humans and robots further develop their cooperation?

It will quite simply become an ever closer bond. Today production often means full automatisation: workers being mainly in charge of planning and maintenance of flexible automation solutions whereas they are not playing a part in production. However, often a sliding degree of automation does make sense. Flexible industrial robots perform one job, people another one. Humans and robots work hand in hand. Direct cooperation between them, called CHR, can be particularly valuable in areas which today are hardly automated. Examples in the automotive industry are both engine and transmission assembly and final assembly. LBR iiwa already works in series production. The potential for human-robot collaboration is enormous but in countless other industries and application environments it has only just begun.

What chances may develop from this particular type of teamwork?

This direct collaboration leads to a number of benefits: compression of space, material supply without plant stops, improved accessibility, flexible cell concepts, programming by demonstration and a sensible division of cognitive tasks (taken up by humans) and repetitive tasks (by robots).

How will future generations deal with robotics?

The term digital natives characterises a generation which is growing up surrounded by digital elements. We also see a development in robotics: today robots may mainly be used in industrial production, however in coming years they will gradually conquer all areas of life heralding ‘robotic natives’, a generation surrounded by various types of automation technologies and systems.

Particularly in view of the tender offer you received from Chinese houseware manufacturer Midea, what specific goals do you pursue internationally and as regards to innovation? 

We want to bring the world to Kuka and Kuka to the world. Growth in the general industry is very strong, especially outside Germany. To realise this, you only have to consider the enormous growth potential of the electronics market, largely taking place in Asia. A focus on general industry goes hand in hand with strengthening internationalisation.

How relevant is Asia to Kuka?

Germany will remain an important market for robot-based automation solutions – not in the least because it is our home market, but we also see that the growth markets of the future are outside our own country and Europe. That is why we focus primarily on Asia and in particular China, the largest and fastest growing market for industrial robots according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR). We want to be there and benefit from the automation trend.

What else needs to be done in the smart world of the future in order to keep connection with those nations?

Progressive digitisation will make tomorrow’s generation often be working in jobs that do not yet exist. Therefore, at all levels a regular review of the activities and training is required, so we can adapt to radically changing conditions. The world employment market of tomorrow will not be the same as today. Just remember how until a few years ago you ordered tickets at the counter – and today by smartphone. With such developments, new jobs will be created.

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Stefan Lampa, CEO of Kuka Roboter GmbH since 2015, has 25 years of experience in the robot business. For Kuka Automation, he held positions in Europe, Asia and Central and North America. At ABB, he was Global Product Group Manager for Robots & Applications.


Picture credits © Matthias Zentner

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