Learning to Love Robots

The self-evolving cyborg intent on destroying humankind is a staple of classic sci-fi films like Terminator. But while malleability and extreme efficiency are characteristics of real-life robots, malevolence is not – as Germany’s billion-euro robotics industry illustrates.
 

August 2020

Take a tour through any car assembly plant in Germany and you’ll be impressed by the elegance with which automatons carry out appointed tasks. Even luxury automaker Porsche, which prides itself on its reputation for made-by-hand construction, uses robots to install heavyweight parts, such as windshields, that demand superhuman precision.

The automotive industry is just one sector where robots will play an invaluable role in the future and help to bring about process transformation. Germany is the world’s fifth most frequent user of robots after China, Japan, the U.S. and South Korea, and the scope ranges from tiny biotech nanobots to the now familiar sight of imposing industrial giants on assembly lines.

Industrial robots working away at a Volkswagen plant © Volkswagen AG

A rapidly evolving industry

“In Germany, along with the auto industry, metalworking, machine construction and chemicals and plastics will have to become more automized to remain competitive,” says Susanne Bieller, the general secretary of the International Federation of Robotics (IFR).

“Robotics has an infinite potential for a range of possible applications,” says Germany Trade & Invest robotics expert Claudia Grüne. “In the food industry, for example, or logistics, where self-driving robot vehicles should become increasingly prevalent.”

German turnover in robotics and automation has grown by 50 percent in recent years, from EUR 10.4 billion in 2013 to an estimated EUR 15.7 billion in 2019. The percentage of German-made robots for export is also on the rise – the International Federation of Robotics forecasts 12 percent annual global growth between now and 2022.

The value of Germany’s robotics industry became evident in 2016 when China’s Midea Group took over industrial robot powerhouse Kuka in Augsburg. But mergers and acquisitions are just one way for international players to get involved in the German sector.

Robots are evolving all the time. Alongside networked industrial models, increasing numbers of service robots will assist human beings in our homes, places of work and hospitals. And in addition to industry giants like Kuka, Siemens or Dürr, there are hundreds of SMEs in Germany working in the field.

One of the top trends is for ‘cobots’ – collaborative industrial robots that work in conjunction with human beings rather than replacing them entirely. “Industry analysts expect cobots to become more and more important in the years to come, particularly as the price for things like sensors and other technology falls,” says Grüne.

Facts & Figures

Sources: 1) IFR 2018; 2) IFR 2016, International Federation of Robotics

Cobots and robotics-as-a-service

Another intriguing phenomenon is the exoskeleton cobot. The automated back support “Cray X” from German Bionics helps industrial workers lift heavy objects. The Augsburg-based start-up won the prestigious German Entrepreneur Award last year.

As innovation in artificial intelligence and sensor technology accelerates, robots are increasingly teaming up with humans. Soft robots, constructed from compliant materials like those in living organisms, are a major and growing subsector, while safety cordons and “kill switches” could someday become obsolete thanks to sensor ingenuity.

The new watchword in robotics is flexibility. Tomorrow’s robots need to be able to perform multiple tasks instead of endlessly repeating single functions. And they may be rented instead of purchased. “Another trend is a new business model: robotics-as-a-service for industry to relieve the relatively high initial investment costs for robotics neophytes,” says Bieller.

For example, thanks to programmable apps and more than a hundred sensors, the Panda Powertool from Franka Emika can perform a variety of tasks in both mass production and high-mix, low volume production runs. Franca Emika bills it as “currently the fastest-selling industry-suited robot in the world.”

»Robotics has an infinite potential for possible applications.«

Claudia Grüne
GTAI expert for robotics

Training your robot

The start-up Wandelbots is taking the idea even further: It has invented a programming ‘trace pen’ that helps owners to teach their robots new tricks. Founded in 2017 by IT scientists at the Technical University of Dresden, the firm already has 70 employees and a Japan office.

So far, there’s a lot more to admire than fear about German robotics. In the workplace of the future, robots will collaborate with workers rather than making them extinct.

Bionic Man

Interview with Eric Eitel, head of communications for German Bionic

German Bionic is best known for exoskeletons. Why that and not robots or cobots?

Market research. Our technical founder comes from cobots, but he got a lot of feedback from industry that there were many situations, for example in logistics, where full automation makes no economic sense. Human beings are still the best troubleshooters.

In what areas is German Bionic looking to grow?

Obviously, in classic logistics and intralogistics. Another new area, which surprised us at the start, is SMEs and tradespeople. And the industry of caring for the elderly.

Cost can be an impediment to SMEs working with robots – what’s your solution?

Since last year, we’ve been offering robotics-as-a-service. For example, every year lots of people change from winter to summer tires and vice versa. For those busy months, garages can rent our exoskeletons.

What’s your advice to foreign investors interested in this sector?

It’s definitely worth taking a look at the German robotics industry. It has lots of small innovative firms.

www.germanbionic.com

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