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What exactly does a robotics expert do?

People work side by side with robots at the Wolfsburg plant. Robotics expert Johannes Teiwes from the Smart Production Lab programs the software for these applications. Part 4 of a series about IT jobs at Volkswagen.

At first glance the action in hall 54 of Volkswagen’s Wolfsburg plant resembles that of many other engine assembly lines. Employees are mounting, inserting and bolting various components and elements into place. The line is moving, with Golf engines going by at regular intervals. So far it all looks standard.

Upon closer inspection, however, it’s apparent that not only people are involved in performing the precision tasks. One of the workers is made of plastic and metal – a robot that assembles engines.

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This type of production, where employees and robotic tools work side by side without any protective barriers, is known as human-robot collaboration (HRC). HRC places high demands not only on safety. Robots that work so closely together with people also require considerable knowledge and skills. “More and more sensors are being installed in robots these days,” says Teiwes. “That requires a new type of programming, and poses some challenges for us at IT.”

People work side by side with robots at the Wolfsburg plant. Robotics expert Johannes Teiwes from the Smart Production Lab programs the software for these applications. Part 4 of a series about IT jobs at Volkswagen.
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Further information can be found on http://www.volkswagenag.com and on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/vwgroup

Note in accordance with Directive 1999/94/EC in its currently applicable version: Further information on official fuel consumption figures and the official specific CO2 emissions of new passenger cars can be found in the EU guide "Information on the fuel consumption, CO2 emissions and energy consumption of new cars", which is available free of charge at all sales dealerships, from DAT Deutsche Automobil Treuhand GmbH, Hellmuth-Hirth-Straße 1, D-73760 Ostfildern, Germany and at www.dat.de.

What exactly does a robotics expert do?

The tool and its creator: Johannes Teiwes programs software for human-robot collaboration.

Teiwes and his colleagues wrote the software for this application, so one could say they breathed digital life into the machine. Teiwes (34) works at the Smart Production Lab of Volkswagen Group IT in Wolfsburg. The term “lab” here makes perfect sense, because the team does intensive research on robotics. And not only on that. The approximately 30 experts working there – primarily computer scientists but also industrial engineers and business specialists – study how robots learn and how they can be integrated into production processes in intelligent ways. They are also active in many other important areas related to digitalization in production. “Our work focuses on smart technologies used in production, always from the perspective of software development,” explains Teiwes. Major topics include the Internet of Things and self-driving vehicles for intralogistics applications.

Robot hand Mirco in the Smart Production Lab

Teiwes studied systems engineering at the University of Bremen, a field that combines elements of electronics, information technology, production engineering, mechanical engineering and process engineering. He deepened his knowledge of HRC at the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI). “I quickly realized that I wanted to specialize in robotics,” he says. He was especially drawn to the interface between software and hardware. “It’s fascinating when simple robotics programs can lead to highly complex actions,” he remarks.

The robot that Teiwes and his colleagues programmed for the job on the assembly line is a never-ending source of fascination. It can identify engines on its own – whether combustion, GTI, TDI, etc. – and perform its task with speed and accuracy. Even more importantly, if one of its human colleagues gets too close, it registers that fact and stops moving. For safety is the highest priority here.

In the Smart Production Lab
At present the robotic arm can perform the requisite movements for seven different engine variants, thanks to very sensitive sensors and sophisticated software logic. “It was important to us to use generic programming,” says Teiwes. That means the functions are initially developed in such a way that they can be used for additional applications. “The bolting function is one of the skill modules we’ve programmed,” he explains. It is both flexible and expandable. “Spaghetti code is something we just don’t have any use for,” he remarks, referring to convoluted programming that seems to have no start or end.
 
The team at the Smart Production Lab has now programmed four robots for four different production tasks at the assembly plant in Wolfsburg. In all these cases, the work is physically very demanding and the employees involved can benefit considerably from human-robot collaboration. “Efficiency and ergonomics play equally important roles,” says Teiwes. “Robots need to help people in ways that make sense. It’s not necessary to use robots everywhere.”

The team at the Smart Production Lab is already working on its next robot project. Known as MIRCO – which stands for Mobile Intelligent Robotic Co-Worker – it is a two-armed robot prototype on a mobile platform. Of special note here is that its creators are experimenting with human-like gripping technology. This type of robot can grasp heavy components, yet be just as effective at holding a single screw. “We humans are the best model for it,” says Teiwes with a smile.
 
“To program robots you need a good imagination and a lot of patience,” he says. Software developers also have to be good at abstraction. “Programming is a very creative process,” he adds. It can’t hurt that Teiwes enjoys playing the piano in his spare time, and is especially fond of improvising and coming up with new melodies. And instead of just two characters to work with – zero and one – at the piano he has a full scale at his disposal.