SMErobotics

Søren Peter Johansen

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SMErobotics

The European Robotics Initiative for Strengthening the Competitiveness of SMEs in Manufacturing by integrating aspects of cognitive systems

Introducing the intelligent robotic co-worker European research initiative "SMErobotics" aims to revolutionize the use of robots in small and medium-sized enterprises

The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Union Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement n° 287787.

Problem

Over two-thirds of European workers in manufacturing are employed in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Their primary means of competition is to respond rapidly to changing production needs and to keep product quality at a very high level. While robots are able to carry out repetitive tasks to a high standard, they do not meet the demands of SMEs for high flexibility. Today's robots know only their nominal task, which limits their ability to deal with sudden changes in the manufacturing process.

For the operation of robots in an SME environment, which is typically less structured and involves more uncertainties, the currently available solutions result in overly complex system integration. Instead, cognitive abilities should be included in the equipment and cognition should take place in both the robot and the human, such that the worker's knowledge can be fully utilised and productivity demands can be met. Additionally, the concepts and symbols used in dialogues need to have a common grounding in order to guarantee ease of use.

A productive and versatile cognitive robot for the SME shop floor is the required advance beyond currently available flexible manufacturing. The SMErobotics vision is to have such robots and to deploy them on SME shop floors. This requires principles for how to develop and integrate such systems as well as a methodology for promoting their use by being able to estimate the end-user benefits (economic, technical and ergonomic). Thus, SMErobotics contributes to the overall ICT objective of improving the competitiveness of European industry by delivering impacts on productivity and innovation across manufacturing sectors ("Europe 2020" strategy).

Solution

We propose the SMErobotics work system, which covers all phases of the robot life-cycle and in which humans and robots can together deal with SME manufacturing uncertainties and are symbiotically able to learn from each other and to learn from the past handling of uncertainties. The SMErobotics vision is to deploy such robots on SME shop floors, with the benefit of long-term improvements in productivity.

"The purpose of SMErobotics is to create the technological foundation for profitable and intelligent robot solutions for small and medium-sized manufacturing businesses": this is how project coordinator Martin Haegele from Fraunhofer IPA explains the goal behind the initiative, which is set to run over a four-year period and receives EU funding under the 7th Framework Programme. The objective of SMErobotics is to make the industrial robot SME-compatible: to combine the high productivity, constant quality and unerring accuracy of modern robot-based industrial automation with the flexible, customer-focused methods of production characteristic of SMEs. To achieve this objective, setup, operation and maintenance must be made much more simple and adaptability to different work environments, processes and tasks must be improved.

Experience

"Adaptive robots that can be flexibly used without high follow-up costs for a variety of different tasks will pay for themselves through lower overall costs and will take SME automation a big step forward." This is what developers confidently believe. Like SMErobot before it, SMErobotics, too, is based on the close cooperation of partners in industry and research with a number of interested SMEs, the objective being to drive forward the necessary technological developments in a manner as close to the real world as possible.

Value

The major impacts of SMErobotics on a manufacturing company's life-cycle phases during an automation process based on cognitive robotics systems are expected to:

  • Increase productivity through automatic adaptation and robust production by 20%
    (refer to objectives #2, 3, covered in WPs 1, 2 and 5)
  • Reduce by 30% the optimisation period after installation and FAT (Factory Acceptance Test) until stable maximum efficiency of the system is achieved, from an average of one year to less than nine months.
  • Increase initial OEE (Overall Equipment Efficiency) by 50%
  • Increase the degree of variance and tolerances for products/processes by 100%

Assuming constant robot sales (105,000 in 2008 [IFR2009]) and 5% of all robot systems set up as cognitive robots, there will be 25,000 cognitive robot systems five years after the end of the project. With an assumed productivity of €200k/a and an increase of 5%, this leads to advantages of €250m/a. This does not include the further major impacts on manufacturing SMEs in Europe.

These benefits require appropriate investments and costs, especially with regard to worker qualification:

  • Increased investments in training and competence-building of workers by 50%.
  • Increased investments in hardware and software components by 20%.
  • Increased investments in system integrator trainer effort by 20-50%.

The combination of these major SMErobotics impacts results in a total cost/benefit pay-off, including all aspects of the life-cycle, significantly better than investments in traditional robotic systems.

As a result of these specific effects on automation life-cycle phases and processes and in combination with the planned demonstrations in WPs 7 and 8, dissemination in WP 10 and training and education in WP 9, the impacts on European manufacturing industry are expected to:

  • Include more than 2500 European SME manufacturing industries in SMErobotics activities to promote collaboration on continued development as well as deployment and technology transfer.
  • Similarly include more than 100 European industrial robotics system integrators and 50 European technology companies.

Innovation

SMErobotics places the emphasis on novel software features, explains Martin Hägele: "An intelligent robotic system does not rigidly follow a specific computer program. Instead, it learns from and with its human co-worker. It continuously improves the quality of its work through human-machine interaction and can be assigned new tasks by the worker himself without the need for the involvement of an external system integrator or a lengthy stoppage in work."

The robot of the future is to be able to communicate with its human "colleague" in a variety of ways depending on the particular situation: from simple voice commands to the input of texts or graphics to intuitive robot guidance. Yet the robot's interaction with its human co-worker is planned to go even further: SMErobotics aims to make it possible in future for a human worker to teach the robot new tasks by practical demonstration, i.e. by "showing" the robot how to carry out even complex tasks of the kind found in industrial assembly.

About

With the leading European robot manufacturers Comau, Güdel, KUKA and Reis and the internationally renowned universities and research establishments of Lund University, Sweden, DTI Danish Technological Institute, Denmark, the fortiss Institute at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and the DLR Institute for Robotics and Mechatronics, SMErobotics has access to the technical know-how required for ambitious solutions and genuine breakthroughs in robotics technology.

Coordinated by Fraunhofer IPA, a leading institution for applied research, and with its SME-experienced industrial partners, who are familiar with the everyday challenges of flexible automation, SMErobotics is engaged in close collaboration with various SMEs, which will test the newly developed technologies under real-world conditions in four technology demonstrators already during the project lifetime. The SMErobotics initiative is open to other SMEs wishing to contribute their experience and to benefit from the latest technological advances.

The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Union Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement n° 287787.