MIRCO is friendly: the “mobile intelligence robotic coworker“ greets and says good-bye to its foremen with waving arms. But that is just for show. For, in the future, MIRCO is intended to give the technicians a hand on the assembly line upon command. The intelligent robot will tow components to the production line, hand them over on command along with the tools needed using its sensitive arms and hands, carry out some work steps on its own such as bolting when instructed by humans. The functionalities it possesses represent the first of its kind worldwide: MIRCO can grip with both coarse and fine motor skills, understand commands given by gestures and then carry them out, keeping out of the way of other coworkers on the assembly line. It can handle parts weighing up to five kilograms and then bolt them in with a sensitive touch. To do this, it has both a “robust“ and a “fine“ hand. And if the working space gets tight, it automatically slows down its movements. Five computers and numerous cameras in and on its body enable it to accomplish all of this.
MIRCO shows what is already possible today
“MIRCO shows what is already possible today,” says Wolfgang Hackenberg, Head of the Smart Production Lab in Wolfsburg. “Our goal for all of our projects is to make production even more efficient and ergonomic.“ This ultimately serves both our clients and our employees.
Applied artificial intelligence, intelligent robotics, the Internet of Things in production – the Volkswagen Group is strengthening its IT expertise and promoting digitalization in its worldwide production network. To do this, an interdisciplinary and international team (“from Peine to Mexico“) in the Smart Production Lab in Wolfsburg is developing software solutions and AI systems for the factory of tomorrow. The 40 IT specialists recently invited peers from the industry and journalists to its “Open Lab Day 2018”. The interest was enormous: several hundred curious visitors came to the IT city.
IT experts ask what’s needed, directly on the assembly line
“It is important for us to combine IT know-how with engineering expertise,” says Jan Wipke, who leads the lab together with Hackenberg. Gone are the days when IT worked on their developments out back in a quiet room, with scant interest in practical application. “Today we go to the production floor, directly to the assembly line, and ask questions and look around to see how we can really help colleagues with our software solutions,” explains Hackenberg.
Digital know-how increasingly determines a company’s success. More and more innovations are software driven. And they are getting more and more sophisticated. Which is why the Volkswagen Group increasingly relies on its own IT expertise and the software it develops in-house, which is tailored to specific requirements. This also applies to areas such as production.
The company follows two premises:
The Group does its own development to remain independent.
The software is neither developed twice, nor over and over again, but rather exactly one time only.
Our solutions must be so functional that they can be used throughout the Group without much effort.
Artificial intelligence in the receiving area
Here is another example, similar to that of MIRCO: artificial intelligence in the receiving area. The IT experts from the Smart Production Lab are developing a Group-wide camera platform that runs on the Volkswagen Group cloud. Each user in the Group can connect a wide variety of camera types to the module, such as thermal imaging, object recognition, or industrial cameras. Image processing is based on artificial intelligence. It allows, for example, the encoding of bar codes for delivery parts or pixelation of faces for surveillance in sensitive areas. All with a single software solution.
Another example is driverless transport systems (DTS) used in production. These are already bringing components and accessories to the assembly lines in many plants, both accurately and punctually to the second. And now the Wolfsburg specialists have gone one big step further: they are developing a digital director that steers all DTS in real time. If there is a problem with a vehicle – such as one caused by a technical malfunction or a group of visitors crossing its path – the time sequences of all other 99 DTS are completely synchronized anew in just a few seconds. In this way, the human production planners get a highly detailed and current picture of the situation to help them make their decisions.
Gluing machine gives a warning before failing
There are many more examples of very concrete applications that the IT experts in the Smart Production Labs are currently working on. For example in “predictive maintenance”. One software program they developed in this area monitors the torques, pressures and volume status, etc. of a gluing machine in order to give a timely failure prognosis. This is cost efficient and helps keep the factory running smoothly. For if such a machine fails during the production process, the economic disadvantage is significant.
“We develop many pilots and prototypes. What’s good, is scaled up. What’s not good, is kicked out. We decide quickly and have a flat hierarchy,” says Wolfgang Hackenberg. “And we don't get bogged down in projects that we realize aren’t going to be successful. We just stop them,” adds Jan Wipke. Founded three and a half years ago, the Smart Production Lab is already quite successful. The number of employees is to be increased to 60.
The Group currently has many labs around the world
In addition to the one at its headquarters in Wolfsburg, the Volkswagen Group has set up more IT labs worldwide: the data lab in Munich, the Group’s AI competence center, or the digital lab in Berlin, one of the most modern software development centers in Europe, are only a few examples. The goal is clear: Volkswagen will continue to systematically take advantage of the opportunities offered by digitalization to make work even more efficient and ergonomic for its employees. “Technology is never an end in itself,” stresses Ralph Linde, Head of the Volkswagen Group Academy, and thus responsible for the training and development of all 640,000 Group employees worldwide. This applies in particular to the ongoing digitalization process, which affects many tasks in factories and offices. “People will be given new digital aids. However, these will not be able to replace human creativity and problem-solving skills,” emphasizes Linde.
Digitalization is also our opportunity to secure industrial employment in Germany.
Digitalization helps maintain industrial employment in Germany
According to Linde, digitalization will continue to revolutionize the working world in factories and offices. “We are addressing this and preparing our employees for it with intensive training. At the same time, we see digitalization as an opportunity to secure industrial employment in Germany, because digitalization and automation can also help us with production costs. And we will be able to leave the less ergonomic work to robots,” explains Linde.
And to friendly ones at that – like MIRCO, who can even greet you.