DiPP - Changing Europe’s manufacturing industries with robotics
Building on the ever growing performance of micro-processors and on an ever more tightly connected world (Internet of Things), robots drive the transformation of our economic and social life. They are indeed ubiquitous but this workshop held on 3 December focused on ICT-enabled automated manufacturing.
Director for Components and Systems, DG CONNECT, European Commission
Head of EU Public Affairs, ABB
Director Public Policy Europe, SEMI Europe
Acting Secretary General, euRobotics
Director General at DIGITALEUROPE
Robots, these autonomous systems that can see, hear, feel, learn and adjust are the embodiment of innovation: will they be able to think too shortly? On the factory floor, they are advanced manufacturing at its best, matching, for instance, the perfection required in ‘clean rooms ‘that are a fixture of micro-chips production facilities. But you can spot them beyond factories, in professional services (surgery with minimal scars, bomb squads and other dangerous rescue operations) or at home (domestic services for senior citizens or those with a handicap, upcoming drone delivery).
By duplicating human skills and replicating a number of humans’ accomplishments, robots are increasingly successful at collaborating with them. For instance exoskeletons help workers lift and transfer heavy loads. More generally, robots boost productivity, hence value for users. Better products made in improved, cheaper ways offer huge opportunities, especially to those regions of the world already in the lead, as is the case with the EU. Fully customized manufacturing is the next frontier, affording production ultimate flexibility. One step further, ‘self-driving’ factories based on technology emulating nervous systems are under serious consideration.
The emergence of fully automated manufacturing processes cannot but question established business models as this new dynamics would more often than not take a disruptive form.
Challenges and responses
Industrial impact. The EU is in the top league of robot manufacturing. In the same vein, our manufacturing record has been stellar since the times of Industry 1.0: it is telling that 4 out of the world’s top 5 automakers are headquartered in Europe. Although Europe is open to competition, value has to be created here and so have programming tools that hold the key to our future. ‘If we don’t own leading-edge technology, we are in trouble’. Action in the fields below will help Europe keep its lead:
Investment. EU R&D programmes and dedicated PPPs have a proven record of being effective at fostering more innovation of direct application in the main three areas identified above: factory, special services, home. Cross-sector partnerships with clients are definitely the way to go.
Standards. Global factories need continuing, real-time and robust connectivity. Their performance hinges on supporting platforms with a similarly global reach: GE’s Predix, Siemens, ABB are but a few leading examples. Cloud technology brings the performance of autonomous systems to the next level whenever the needs go beyond mere storage. For instance, it is instrumental to making ‘mutual learning’ possible throughout the autonomous systems of the global factory. Those won’t run smoothly and effectively together unless all pieces are brought to a par via reliable quality certification and are enabled to connect through flawless interoperability.
Security and safety. Robots of Industry 3.0 used to be kept in a cage. If Industry 4.0 is to be the golden era for collaborative robots, we should make sure that once out of the cage robots don’t get out of control. MEPs have taken this challenge seriously enough to set up a group focused on all legal aspects of autonomous systems (see also “Upcoming issues of EU law”). With driverless cars around the corner, it might be worth contemplating a Digital Transformation caucus where MEPs, industry and civil society representatives can debate the future.
Acceptance. Trust is hard to fathom and extremely volatile: 70% of Europeans hold a positive view of robots but 70% believe they will kill jobs. Undoubtedly, robots and automation will have impact on jobs and workforce skills. Yet opportunities are so big, not only on the factory floor but in everyday life. Jobs will not disappear but will change, in parallel with already growing demand for engineers, computer scientists, demand for designers, biologist, but also psychologist will increase. We have to show more of the ‘nice and friendly’ robots to citizens so that they can see for themselves. China has the highest count of robots in the world and acceptance is obviously not an issue there. Closer to home we need a ‘Try us’ campaign EU-wide. Incidentally, we should keep in mind that robots have to adjust to our values, not the other way around since they hold no value on their own. Robots can bring manufacturing back to Europe, the continent with long tradition of robotics.