February 14, 2006 Almost a million industrial robots are in service worldwide, and their numbers are steadily growing. However, most of them are found in the factories of major enterprises. An EU project aims to develop new, inexpensive versions for small and medium-sized firms. The European Union’s SMErobot project – the name is derived from “small and medium sized enterprises”, – include leading research institutes, universities and the top five European robot manufacturers. Its participants have set out to make robots attractive beyond the confines of large-scale industry. “For this to happen, the metal helpers must be completely redeveloped to a certain extent,” asserts Martin Hägele of the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA, who is coordinating the project.
The consortium has set itself three ambitious goals in particular that it means to achieve within the four-year duration of the project: The new robot must understand easy-to-learn, “intuitive” commands. It must meet all safety-relevant requirements for sharing the workplace with human colleagues. And it must be capable of being installed and put into operation within three days. Its modular design will ensure a wide scope of applications, be it for processing wood, metal or ceramics, or for drilling, sawing or lifting. But at what price? Ideally, it will not be more than a third of the amount that a conventional system would cost.
So the hurdles are rather high. Before now, it has taken a week simply for the programmer to write the appropriate control software. In future every factory worker will be able to issue the commands. This means that the machine will have to understand words and gestures - even amidst factory noise. It must also be capable of reading images or drawings. The cooperation between man and machine will resemble that of a master craftsman with an apprentice. Naturally, the robot must not present a hazard of any kind. Most present-day industrial robots are safely fenced off, or else their mobile parts are kept at a distance by sensors. But it can be done without sensors: A promising new approach is that of inherent safety which is another goal of the project. In this concept, the maximum force that a robot can exert is too weak to harm a human being. This can only be achieved when building the moving parts as light as possible.
The project partners not only plan to develop hardware and software, however, but to offer new investment, financing and operating models tailored to the needs and resources of SMEs. The necessary relevance to practical application is ensured by fully involving the enterprises in the project.