At the Hanover Trade Fair there was yet another flurry of photos and television reports on robots with gripper arms, showing them shaking hands with politicians and sorting raw eggs by size. These automated systems, and in particular their extremities, have become a symbol of artificial intelligence (AI). They can already be found at the Gläserne Manufaktur (The Transparent Factory) in Dresden.
“Innovative sensor jacket trains industrial robots” was the headline of a recent press release from the Volkswagen Group. In order to find out more, we went to the assembly hall in Dresden to talk with Marco Weiß, Head of New Mobility & Innovations, and Christian Piechnick, founder and CEO of the start-up Wandelbots.
While the e-Golf1 is being produced here at the Gläserne Manufaktur, at this – still closed off – part of the hall a “robot colleague” is being trained for the job. The training is made possible with the help of a “sensor jacket” worn by Sebastian Werner, a co-founder of Wandelbots. The jacket has nine sensors on the hands, arms, shoulders and chest. “We put a lot of effort into figuring out how to simplify the programming for robots,” explains Piechnick. “We worked with cameras and with optical systems, but they all had their drawbacks when it came to implementation. The sensor jacket simply turned out to be the best solution for programming.”
Like cloning – but minus the test tube
The self-learning robot demonstrates this in impressive form, by immediately imitating every arm, hand, upper body, or shoulder movement that Werner makes.
It’s a little like cloning, but one done in the automotive industry instead of a test tube. The sensors attached to the jacket register the wearer’s movements in real time and send the data in wireless form to a computer, which processes them at lightning speed to control the robot.
Everything takes place in a matter of nanoseconds. When Werner raises his arm, so too does the robot. “We have a machine-learning program running in the background, so the robot isn’t doing absolutely exactly the same movements that I am,” he says. “Our product generates a program that optimizes the robot’s performance. The more often I show it a movement, the better and more reliable it becomes.”
“Entirely new types of applications are now conceivable,” says Weiß. “These individually trainable robots can be used to mount loudspeakers in doors, apply adhesive pads, or install power window regulators.” These three tasks are the first ones that the Volkswagen Group and the Wandelbots start-up are testing specifically. “That’s because we want to put the robots into practice soon, and use them as sources of added value,” explains Weiß.
Wandelbots has exactly the same aim. “We want to develop a product that enables every employee to quickly program an industrial robot for his or her individual use. And do so without any knowledge of programming!” explains Piechnick.
The amount of time needed to teach a robot depends on the complexity of the task. A robot can learn limited and repetitive movements in a few minutes, but it might need several hours for more challenging tasks. The goal is clear though: in a few years, the idea is to have small industrial robots waiting every morning at reception or directly on the production line for the employees to arrive. Each employee can then take one of these helpers to their work station, quickly show it what to do and then have time for other responsibilities.
Wandelbots is a superb shortcut to achieving our goals.
The tests currently being run on the e-Golf in Dresden are a win-win situation for both the Volkswagen Group and Wandelbots. For its part, the Group can try out new technologies and then immediately integrate them into ongoing production processes. And the start-up can test its ideas directly with a powerful industrial partner. “Wandelbots is a superb shortcut to achieving our goals,” says Weiß. And Piechnick adds, “Without you, we wouldn’t be nearly as focused on practical applications.”
The Gläserne Manufaktur is an excellent place to use robots. The level of manual work is still relatively high here, compared to other sites in the Group. To install a loudspeaker, for example, an assembly worker actually needs three hands: one to hold the speaker, one to hold the pliers and one to place the rivet on the pliers. Now the robot holds the loudspeaker – and in the future will install it entirely on its own.
As for the employees, they are gaining valuable experience in the process. If the robot hits the door with too much force when positioning the speaker, the electronic system registers this and moves the component more slowly and with “more feeling”, i.e. more gently, into position the next time.
And what do the employees have to say about their new “colleagues”? They do have a few concerns, of course, such as whether the robots will take over their jobs. But most of them quickly realize that their artificial colleagues is just helping them out. And that will make their jobs easier.
We’re working with the Volkswagen Group like we would with a start-up
Over the coming months, Weiß, Piechnick, Werner and everyone else involved (Wandelbots has nine employees) want to enhance the precision and stability of the robots’ processes. The three jobs – loudspeakers, adhesive pads, and window regulators – are to be professionalized in such a way that the robots will be able to join existing production processes in the late fall. Additional jobs have also been identified, such as screwing components on the interior of the e-Golf. Quick-learning robots are especially welcome when it comes to applying screws overhead or around corners.
It’s clear that there is “good chemistry” between the partners here in Dresden. Members of the Volkswagen Group and the Wandelbots team attend trade fairs together. Or they meet up for a beer after work to continue discussing new ideas. Wandelbots founder Piechnick distills his appreciation for the Volkswagen Group into a single sentence: “Our everyday routine at the Gläserne Manufaktur is like working with another start-up – quick coordination, rapid decision-making and an unswerving focus on what’s doable.”
Receiving that much praise is something special, even for the Volkswagen Group.
1 e-Golf: power consumption in kWh/100 km: combined 12,7; CO2 emission combined in g/km: 0; efficiency class: A+