In Focus: Service Robotics Probes New Horizons

The market for service robotics is growing. According to figures provided by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) around 21,000 service robots were sold for professional applications in 2013, generating sales of $ 3.6 billion. Due to both new technology and innovations combined with the innovative business models used today, the next few years promise a period of highly dynamic growth for the sector. We spoke to Dr. Markus Klaiber, Technical Director at SCHUNK, to ask his opinions on the current developments and trends.

SCHUNK SVH 5-finger gripping hand

SCHUNK SVH 5-finger gripping hand

Even the experts can only guess what Google is developing in the field of robotics. Do companies in Europe have reason to be scared, or has the EU-funded project Horizon 2020 set a good course for success?Right now, it’s impossible to tell what Google is aiming to achieve with its acquisitions. So there’s no need to panic right now. On the contrary: the activities of Google and Amazon emphasize the importance of service robotics, and should encourage us to keep following the path we’ve started on. What is clear is that service robotics is already well-established in a variety of market segments, from high-tech, industrial applications to robotics solutions for private users. Never before has Europe had so many promising and practical service robotics projects on the go as we are seeing right now. Both the European research landscape and a number of European companies are working hard to actively develop this field. Over the next few years Horizon 2020 will boost this trend for growth even further. It provides outstanding conditions for us to develop Europe’s excellent research results into fully-fledged, market-ready products.

What upcoming technological highlights can you tell us about?
For many years, SCHUNK has been a pioneer in the field of mobile gripping systems. Our standardized, portable grippers and lightweight arms have been true game-changers in the field of service robotics. They couldn’t be simpler to operate: the SCHUNK Powerball light-weight arm can be controlled using a smartphone or tablet, for example. One particular technical highlight would have to be the SCHUNK SVH 5-finger hand, which is based on the structure of a human hand, and has a similar number of degrees of freedom. It can be used to replicate human-like gripping operations and communicate using gestures. We are also working intensively on seeing grippers. This principle has already been put into practice with the one-finger hand of the Care-O-bot® 4, which was developed by the Fraunhofer IPA Institute in Stuttgart in partnership with SCHUNK. We presented this to the world for the first time at the SCHUNK Expert Days on Service Robotics. This modular, multi-functional robot assistant can be fitted with a built-in hand camera that allows users to reliably view dimly lit areas on high shelves, for example. And SCHUNK will be going one step further at the Hannover Messe trade show, where we will demonstrate that versatile production automation that meets the requirements of Industry 4.0 can already be achieved today. Condition monitoring using force/torque sensors, intelligent workpiece carriers, multiple usage of parts, predictive maintenance, collaboration between humans and robots, or machine-to-machine communication – SCHUNK’s booth will make all these ideas a reality.

There are lots of good ideas out there, but many never come to fruition because the right software isn’t available. How does a hardware provider like SCHUNK deal with this issue?
As we can see from the billions being invested by Google, Amazon and the EU, the speed of development in the service robotics industry is increasing rapidly. There have never been so many market-viable applications – and never before such a sense of dynamism. This applies to both hardware and software. At the SCHUNK Expert Days at the end of February, it will become clear where we are heading with this. For example, in just a few years, the open operating system ROS has succeeded in becoming a central platform for service robotics applications. We believe that ROS is going to be one of the most important operating systems in the field of service robotics.

As a component manufacturer, SCHUNK works intensively with universities and research institutes to develop simple ways of integrating our modules and assembly groups into higher-level systems and produce examples for how they can be implemented. These include ROS drivers, efficient simulation tools and many other products. Our aim is to make operating SCHUNK components as easy as using a smartphone. System integration is just as important to us as software. There is already a wide range of standardized components – grippers, lightweight arms, drives, sensors, mobile platforms, mapping systems, system software – just waiting to be combined into systems that meet market requirements. The demand for these products is currently developing into a huge market.

Are there any interdisciplinary concepts that are currently helping to drive this development forward?
Service robotics is important to many of today’s industries, from agriculture and distribution to the automotive, medical technology, and consumer goods industries. Expectations can vary wildly from one industry to another, but at the same time we are learning that many functions and requirements apply no matter what industry the customer is in. BMWi’s new technology program “Autonomics – Autonomous Systems and Simulation-Based Systems for Medium-Sized Businesses” and the EU-funded project “Cognitive Systems and Robotics” have been particularly important in driving progress forward in this area. In order to maintain our pioneering role here, we now need to target further progress with new research projects within the Horizon 2020 framework and push forward in close collaboration between public resources, research facilities, and private industry. In this context, the European Commission’s “Robotics PPP” initiative will play an important role.

Some of the robot assistants that are currently available for industrial and commercial use seem to be simple service robots. Do you see a crossover between service and industrial robots – perhaps even a kind of technological cross-pollination?
First of all, it is important to note that industrial and service robots differ significantly in terms of specifications. This can be seen if we consider the required positioning accuracy, for example, or how the robots are integrated into the overall system. While traditional industrial robots perform their tasks in clearly structured environments with external safeguards, service robots usually work in unstructured environments and collaborate directly with humans. As a result, they require often complex safety concepts in order to ensure safe operation, perhaps even going as far as proximity sensors and tactile skin. We need to ensure that industrial safety standards are applied to service robotics wherever it makes sense to do so. However, at the same time we need to make sure we don’t overdo it and end up running up exorbitant costs. A healthy level of cost and safety awareness always needs to be applied when implementing service robotics solutions. On the other hand, some smaller aspects, such as gripping technology and kinematics, can be applied to service robotics applications relatively easily. The most important thing is that the manufacturer thinks beyond purely industrial applications and also considers the far more varied requirements of service robotics. As a result of this approach, the line between industrial and service robots has already become blurred in areas such as the automotive industry, for example.

Young people in particular often deal with American Internet corporations in their private lives. To what extent are these companies competitors to the European industry when it comes to the next generation of professional experts?
American Internet corporations are not the primary target group for college graduates, even though they like to use their products. What is true is that many of today’s students start looking into the most important players in their field very early on, often beginning their networking while they are still in college. Both the market leaders and the most innovative companies in European industry are doing very well in this regard. Many boast an excellent public reputation, or have already established themselves as technological pioneers or market leaders in their particular niches. The European labor market is extremely attractive right now, especially for engineers.

What is SCHUNK’s approach to this situation?
SCHUNK has partnerships with a number of schools and colleges. These often lead to valuable contacts. We also offer many dual study options, a route that is particularly appealing to many young people. These combine the theory of college study with practical professional experience with an innovative global market leader.

What advice would you offer your European partners and colleagues?
Put simply: keep your eye on the ball, work together, cultivate partnerships, and expand your horizons. Our goal must be to build on Europe’s position as a technological leader and be open to collaborative research within Europe. The European mentality still offers a lot of advantages in today’s market compared to both Asia and the USA. However, it is also part of our social responsibility to promote technological process on a global scale. As such, it is important for us to exchange scientists between every country and culture, and to work together to train the next generation of researchers.