The Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg, Hall 55, Smart Production Lab. Neon lighting, white walls, shiny floor. Nothing to distract your attention from the technical revolution. In the middle of the room, Wolfgang Hackenberg and Johannes Teiwes are putting the robot through its paces. The working area has a size of three by two meters. Two robot arms grab and install transmission shafts and clutch rings – this is child’s play for many industrial robots and nothing out of the ordinary in the automotive industry, as long as the robots perform their work behind a safety barrier. But groundbreaking developments are in progress here. For the first time, human beings and robots are working hand in hand. This is only possible because the robot shows consideration. The robot can detect what people want it to do. Hackenberg and his team have taught the robot together with experts from the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI).
Hackenberg approaches the robot. Immediately, the machine slows down, moving its arms out of the way and attempting to carry on working. “The robot detects my approach and shows consideration for me,” says Hackenberg. “This is the fundamental prerequisite for smart human-machine interaction.” It is an essential requirement for an entirely new type of cooperation between human beings and robots.
Hackenberg (36), holds an engineering doctorate. At the Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg, he heads the Smart Production Lab. This is one of five hotbeds of IT development within the Group. The others are located in Berlin, Munich and San Francisco. At these labs, experts are working on the digital future of the Volkswagen Group in a start-up atmosphere. In close corporation with research institutes and technology partners, they are creating new solutions in the fields of Industry 4.0, big data, new mobility solutions, virtual reality, connectivity and the Internet of things.
At the Smart Production Lab in Wolfsburg, the main focus is on the smart factory. In the digitalized factory of the future, machinery and equipment, robots, goods and products will be networked with each other. People and robots will no longer work on a component beside each other or after each other but at the same time, acting in cooperation.
“Up to now, it has been necessary to ensure physical separation between the working steps and working areas of people and robots,” Hackenberg explains. “This is not genuine cooperation.” Things are different at the Smart Production Lab. “We have integrated a proprietary robot and sensors using software in such a way that workers and robots can use the same working space without any hazards and can even interact. For the first time, we have been able to realize direct cooperation between people and robots.”
In the development of this system, the experts from Volkswagen’s Smart Production Lab cooperated closely with scientists from the Robotics Innovation Center of the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) in Bremen. DFKI is one of the world’s leading artificial intelligence research institutes. Experts from Volkswagen and the center have already cooperated intensively in various areas for several years. Recently, Volkswagen also acquired a stake in the renowned research institute. As a result, Volkswagen benefits from key know-how transfer from this top-level institution, providing impetus for the digitalization of its plants, among other things. One of the first results of this cooperation is the use for the first time of software allowing direct cooperation between humans and robots, which can be applied to completely different industrial robots and areas of work.
The secret of the smart robot is not to be found in its arms and its grabbers but below the working area, where Hackenberg and his team installed the computer unit. Here, the ROCK system processes waves and gestures, calculates all sequences of human motion recorded by the sensors around the robot’s working area and evaluate the results.
A wave from Hackenberg is sufficient to stop the robot. He waves again and the machine continues its work or hands over components and tools. As soon as Hackenberg approaches the working area of the robot without making a gesture, the machine automatically reduces its speed and takes avoiding action.
But what is the purpose of this development? The “Factory 4.0” will not be empty of people. Human workers will still be needed. “We want robots to take over physically demanding or ergonomically difficult tasks,” says Hackenberg. The objective is to develop a factory of the future where people perform complex tasks with high levels of specialist expertise, creativity and problem-solving capabilities. People will concentrate on added value, individual fine tuning and quality management. In contrast, robots with integrated sensors and new safety concepts will assume responsibility for ergonomically difficult, physically strenuous work.
At the Smart Production Lab, the future has already begun.