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“I’m not a machine”

Industrially intelligent human-robot cooperation is being prepared for the real world in the Smart Production Lab – with people playing the leading roles

"I’m not a machine!
I'm a human being made of flesh and blood."
Tim Bendzko

The fresh green letters “n@twork” adorning the area next to the entrance of this cutting-edge office building stretch vertically toward the “cloud.” This former cabbage garden is now the home of Volkswagen's fledgling IT City in Wolfsburg.

“We, the members of the Volkswagen Smart Production Lab, are a young, agile group of people who are working to implement hardware-based software solutions,” Wolfgang Hackenberg says in describing himself and his 35 colleagues. Unlike in the song “Keine Maschine” (I’m not a machine) by the German singer-songwriter Tim Bendzko, humans are to remain firmly in control and not just function like machines.

Revolution in production

Hackenberg’s team has its eye set on doing nothing less than inventing the next stage of robotics. “Our mission is to work with the department to digitalize production,” the IT expert with a Ph.D. says in describing the revolutionary work being done to develop smart production operations that will be both customer and employee focused. 

The processes are to remain easy to understand and perform even as complexity and flexibility increase. How?

Digitalization and artificial intelligence (AI) are the two key terms that are being brought to life in the Smart Production Lab – designed exactly to meet the needs of production workers. To perform the work, the team has to conduct a continuous dialogue with the production department and receive feedback from it. “Production and IT are growing together in a VW-specific manner,” Hackenberg says. He is talking about a scenario in which the physical world of robots, forklifts and other machinery will form a unit with the large digital network that Volkswagen already has and that is continuously growing – as intelligent human-robot collaboration.

3-month sprints: Fail fast, win fast

“No robots have been able to thus far. But here we have managed to,” says the team leader, who is pleased with his team’s accomplishments time and again. Furthermore, he is certain: “Software will fundamentally change robotics in the next two to three years,” Hackenberg says. The IT team is bundling all of its activities into its “Future Production Ecosystem.” In this ecosystem, they are digitalizing sub-steps of production and drawing on Volkswagen production data as a way of optimizing them. This work also involves mobile wearable devices. The sensors built into watches, glasses or work clothing will provide workers with information. For instance, the system will let people know if they have assumed an ergonomically incorrect position.

 The motto of IT City is: “We agilely advance in sequences of three-month sprints. When something works, we stick with it. If it doesn’t, we haven't wasted much money on it.” The basic job of the young team is to pursue agile software development from the pilot and prototype stages to the initial rollout on the production line, to set robotic benchmarks and create individualized networks.

Robots without borders

  • A true first
  • Crash-avoidance matrix & camera-eyes
  • Efficient production
  • Assistant robot

The work has enabled not just Volkswagen employees to work hand in hand with robots. It has also given robots the ability to roll along in a coordinated manner that avoids collisions because they recognize one another. Their industrialization is anything but trivial. A system must be so robust that a robot will continue to precisely perform grasping tasks even after 20,000 repetitions.

In addition to a crash-avoidance matrix, the system is equipped with camera-eyes, recognizes people in its field of vision and gets out of their way. As a result, employees and robots can share the same work area at the same time. If an employee approaches, the robot will move away from him or her. If the employee steps back, the robot will go about its job – by doing such things as removing and placing a transmission shaft in the component factory, then taking a clutch ring and installing it precisely on the shaft. The robot in the Smart Production Lab is the only one so far that can do this job around the world.

The team has to develop solutions for the huge Volkswagen Group with its more than 120 factories in accordance with its own ideas. “We do research and development work on solutions that you cannot simply buy off the rack,” Hackenberg says with a touch of pride. One thing is crucial for Volkswagen: It needs to have an efficient production operation in the future that is based on smart control systems.

“In Germany, you will find just a few experts in this area,” he says. “We have trained some in order to roll out our developments with assistant robots in a system so that we will have very good jobs at Volkswagen in the future and can continue to meet customers’ individual needs.” The term “assistant robot” shows just where the work is heading: The robot provides help while the human controls the task.

Assistant robot: The robot provides help while the human controls the task.

Simplicity despite growing complexity

Systems of the future will become increasingly complex. “We software engineers must provide workers of the future with tools that will enable them to continue to control the systems and manage them,” Hackenberg says.

And because people made of flesh and blood work in production and will continue to do so, the work performed by them should not just become easier with the help of digitalization. It should also become more varied and challenging – done with the assistance of their colleague the robot, an important, but subordinate associate who is working on the supervisor's behalf.