During the ninth SCHUNK Expert Days on Service Robotics, Ralf Steinmann, Director Business Unit Gripping Systems at SCHUNK, explained current developments and trends in the field of service robotics. He sees the biggest growth potential in the industrial environment – in highly networked, autonomous CoBot systems for Industry 4.0.
Mr. Steinmann, this year marks the ninth year of the SCHUNK Expert Days event. How has the field of service robotics changed during this time?
In the past nine years, service robotics has become a fast-changing and highly dynamic market. I remember well the first SCHUNK Expert Days on Service Robotics. Back then, the interest among industrial enterprises in innovative robot solutions was rather moderate. Service robots existed almost exclusively in the university environment and even there they were often the target of ridicule. Today, technological corporations such as Google, retailers such as Amazon and even states and confederations, such as the European Union, are investing billions in the development and expansion of service robotics. Recent forecasts of the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) estimate that there will be more than 150,000 new service robots in professional use and about 35 million new service robots in private use between 2015 and 2018. Service robotics is relevant today for many different sectors, from the defense industry and agriculture to the automotive industry, medical engineering and even consumer goods. In the latter sector, entirely new market segments have originated with vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers.
Which trends will shape the development of service robotics in the next ten years?
First, it is necessary to differentiate between service robotics for household use and for industrial use. Especially the simple household robots are rapidly becoming widespread. They require hardly any technical know-how, operate with exceptional reliability in their defined area of application and are affordable for many private households, since they are manufactured in large quantities. The most important aspect of these service robots in the future will be efficient, i.e. highly automated production. Service robots for industrial use, on the other hand, are much more complex, both with respect to the specific task and to the environment of use.
We assume that autonomously operating CoBots, or robots that can be used directly in human environments, will be found throughout the entire production process in the middle to long term. Within Industry 4.0 they will become an important component of the smart factory. Especially in assembly applications there will soon be a drastic increase in the number of robot-supported assistance systems. The developments in this segment will focus on sensor technology, comprehensive networking all the way to the component level and safety functions. To achieve this, the trend is toward interdisciplinary, cross-company R&D cooperations. With respect to the gripping systems, SCHUNK is in worldwide demand as a partner.
How would you describe SCHUNK’s position in the market for industrial service robotics?
SCHUNK is a component supplier in the fields of both industrial robots and industrial service robotics. We see our strengths in the development of intelligent, networkable and flexible gripping system components. With more than 300 standard electric modules SCHUNK today already offers the world’s largest selection of mechatronic components for gripping systems. Especially our mobile grippers and lightweight arms with 24V technology have decisively shaped service robotics. The smart SCHUNK modules enable condition and process monitoring as well as communication directly at the component level. And operation could not be easier. It is possible, for example, to control the SCHUNK Powerball Lightweight Arm or the multi-functional SCHUNK SVH Gripping Hand via smartphone or tablet computer. ROS drivers in the future will facilitate integration in higher-level service robotics systems.
What are the biggest challenges?
Human-robot cooperation (HRC) in close quarters requires intelligent sensor technology, safe and reliable control and software, as well as failsafe communication. With the world’s first safety gripping system SCHUNK has already set standards in this area. We will continue to develop this benchmark position throughout the current year.
What innovations are planned by SCHUNK?
A highlight at Hannover Messe will be the intuitively programmable SCHUNK LWA 4P Powerball Lightweight Arm in a force-controlled embedded version that is prepared for human-robot cooperation. The anthropomorphic gripper arm features completely integrated electronics, optional electric force control, a web interface and battery-capable 24V torque motors. It is designed for mobile use and can be programmed virtually via a smart device. In combination with the SCHUNK SVH Gripping Hand it allows multi-functional gripping, which means it is capable of successively gripping completely different types of components without the necessity of changing the gripper.
Director Business Unit Gripping Systems,
SCHUNK GmbH & Co KG, Lauffen/Neckar