Replacing, Changing or Filling the Gap?
The role of Robots and Cobots in Industry and Agriculture
This month we look at how robotics are shaping and influencing the future of workplaces and different industries. In this context, we spoke to Robert Vogel from TQ Robotics, who explains how robots and cobots can change the economy and the market and which opportunities and potential lie in their use. Organifarms Co-Founder and CSO Mario Schäfer gives us some insights on the role of robots in the agricultural world.
Robert, if we look into the future of robotics - where do you see potential and what opportunities are there?
Robert: Today, less than 0.5% of industrial companies work with robots. Especially for small and medium-sized companies, there is great potential here in the future. Cobot systems open new possibilities for companies in this area. Cobots can be used in a variety of ways - the simple and graphic programming of the Panda, for example, makes it possible to automate processes sustainably, flexibly and on one's own. Cobots can thus take over monotonous, repetitive tasks and relieve employees. In addition, quality and quantity in production can be improved - which can ensure competitiveness.
Mario: It is this ensuring of competitiveness that is also a major task in agriculture. When growers can't find workers to pick the strawberries or other fruit, they can't sell them either. Regarding quality, it's also similar for us, because the robot can harvest without touching the fruit and thus avoids pressure marks that could lead to faster molding.
In which industries do you see automation advancing the most?
Robert: I would say in manufacturing and the electronics industry. The big advantage of cobots is that they are easy to program, control and operate. Without bulky safety fences, the cobots can be easily integrated into the production facility. They can be set up easily and operated by existing employees after only a short training phase. This also means that their acquisition is not only worthwhile for very large companies, but also already for smaller and medium-sized ones. This way, manufacturing businesses can implement new processes or product lines very flexibly and respond successfully to customer wishes or market requirements. Such agile ways of working are also important when dealing with robots - because changes in the economy are the order of the day.
Where and how else is your robot used?
Robert: It is in particular used for processes that include lightweight items, as the robot is able to move less weight compared to pick-and-place robots. Therefore, our cobot is often used in small and medium-sized companies – Organifarms is an example of integrating it in Start-ups, too!
...how can we imagine its use there? What challenges are companies overcoming with the robot?
Robert: Companies in Europe in particular are facing the challenge of "high mix, low volume". In other words, they have to produce a large variety of products in relatively low quantity. A high degree of flexibility is required here - systems must be easily changeable and programmable at short notice. The smallest technical parts must be processed reliably. The cobot from Franka Emika is particularly impressive in this area with its tactile capabilities. These enormously sensitive properties can be used in all conceivable industrial applications. It is ideal for PCB testing, soldering, but also for various assembly activities.
Mario: This sensitivity is also what we use in our harvesting robot. However, a greater role is the flexibility of the software interface – it allows us to send new commands and trajectories during operation – ones that can change quickly.
When humans and robots work together, it's different from when there are only humans in the company - what's special about collaborating with a cobot?
Robert: Collaborating robots are increasingly finding their way into industry and economy, where they optimize work processes. This is not always well received by employees - the main reason for this is the prejudice that jobs are lost in this way. This concern is understandable and must be alleviated for employees - by clearly demonstrating the advantages and opportunities.
What are these advantages for the employees?
Robert: Robotics do not eliminate the role of the skilled worker, only his area of responsibility changes. The skilled worker of the future has a team of robots, which he accompanies, controls and is responsible for. The employee is therefore trained to lead this team of robots.
The cobot therefore does not take away any jobs, but actually opens up completely new opportunities for the employee to develop professionally.
Mario, do you see this development in the same way - as an advantage for the employee?
Mario: In a way, yes. However, we're developing our product more into a gap - because growers can't currently find enough workers to handle the workload they need. In other words, it's not so much a question of someone being replaced or given new tasks, but rather of a work performance being provided that wasn't possible before.
What stands in the way of this working world?
Robert: Unfortunately, in many cases the current standards situation - similar to the challenge of data protection in other areas - stands in the way of technology. Security aspects are of fundamental importance and must be taken into account. But in some cases, the standards have not yet been adapted to the new technology. Here, a revision of the standards would certainly be beneficial in order to create even better conditions for cooperation between humans and robots - side by side, in the smallest of spaces or without a protective space. After all, robotics has developed to the point where this is possible!
What does that look like in agriculture, Mario?
Mario: Here, too, there are still few standards for the inclusion of robots - in the greenhouse, for example. Here we see that many developments are currently taking place. Of course, the standards here will adapt over time, also regarding safety rules and so on. But in the greenhouse, for example, it is much easier to keep a certain distance from the robot than in a smaller production room.
As the robotic industry is evolving rapidly – are you taking into account what your customers long for or do they influence your development in any way?
Robert: They certainly do! It’s our goal to enable our customers to independently implement the most complex processes in record time, with a unique return on investment. In other words, we provide the customer with everything they need to automate their processes independently in order to work quickly, effectively and flexibly. We are in close contact with our customers, so that we can always adapt our applications to their needs and challenges and add new processes to the ecosystem. Many customers are not sure whether robotics could make their work easier or they are not sure what is technically feasible. Therefore, we check their processes before implementing our robots, give feedback and adapt if possible and needed.
Mario: Our experience is very similar here! For us, too, it was important from the very beginning to involve the customers in the process and to see in each individual case whether and how our solution works for the respective model. Both sides can benefit from this - because we gain more knowledge about the industry and can incorporate the information, and the customer naturally gets the right product.
Thank you for the Interview, Robert and Mario!
You can find all information on the Panda and Franka Emika on their website: www.franka.de