Professor Samia Nefti-Meziani from The University of Salford provides a compelling insight into the future of robotics science, research and training for the 4th Industrial Revolution
One of the key concepts of the 4th Industrial Revolution is the idea of a ‘smart factory’, where physical systems such as production lines and robots communicate with each other, as well as humans, through the Internet of things (IoT) and are linked with cyber systems that can make simple decentralised decisions with a high level of autonomy. Human intervention is minimal and intuitive and where humans can benefit from help, robotic technologies can assist to make tasks both easier and safer. Such factories would be highly efficient and offer a competitive advantage.
Researchers devising more effective robotic technologies will, therefore, have a huge impact on manufacturing and other sectors in the near future. In smart factories, people will increasingly work alongside robots, will be able to customise assembly lines, and robotic technologies will assist us to be more productive in our jobs.
Preparing for this future scenario and ensuring that upcoming robotic technologies are both resilient and sustainable is a challenge for a new generation of scientists. The SMART-E project (Sustainable Manufacturing through Advanced Robotics Training in Europe) was set up to deliver world-class research and training programme to support a new generation of roboticists who aspire to play central roles in the 4th Industrial Revolution.
Addressing the emerging issues in robotics research
The research as part of the SMART-E project focused on emerging issues, such as embodied intelligence, verification and testing, interoperability, worker-support by cyber-physical systems, autonomous de-localised decision making, plus practical business considerations such as ensuring that new manufacturing processes are resilient, sustainable and cost-effective.
The scientific focus of the project was divided into three main areas, which when combined, covered the concepts relevant to the majority of emerging robotic technologies we expect in Industry 4.0.
Dexterous, soft and compliant robotics in manufacturing
This area of research focused on ‘mechanically intelligent’ machines, which adapt and are able to manipulate soft and hard, as well as light and heavy objects, with variable stiffness and dexterous motion in changing or new environments. Traditionally, industrial robots are ‘blind’ in their performance and are only able to grasp one way, with one gripping force. A more attuned sensitivity to the environment is a key advance to ensure safe human-robot interaction. To achieve this level of ability of grippers, you need a combination of soft manipulators, learning-based control schemes and soft sensors.
Such robotic applications will prove useful for high-precision tasks on assembly lines in factories and for performing assisting roles for humans, in settings such as surgery or working in marine or nuclear reactor scenarios. For pick and place tasks, or for example, giving close to real-life grip sensitivity in prosthetic hands, this technology is invaluable. The UK nuclear industry has already recognised the potential of the SMART-E gripper, which has been incorporated into a recent project for use in nuclear decommissioning.
Reconfigurable and logistics robotics
Another problem identified by the research focused on robotic production lines. The upheaval and logistical challenge associated with changing the operation a specific line can be a fundamental barrier to the adoption of robotic and automation solutions for many companies. For a small business with budget and time constraints to consider, changing its automation is an investment that’s far too risky and time- consuming.
The SMART-E project sought to address this issue with the understanding it could lead to substantial economic benefits for many businesses. The solution was in a quickly deployable, flexible automation system for sustainable manufacturing. It worked by advancing the control-system-related technology of compliant and modular, reconfigurable robots. These systems adapt efficiently to frequent changes in the production line.
A new learning approach means robots can be trained online, without interruption of the production cycle. European manufacturers can adapt their production lines, which means they are competitive and as a direct result will drive employment for operators. Advanced machine learning techniques also improve the monitoring and maintenance of complex robotic systems, making the manufacturing process more sustainable.
Safe human-robot interaction and cooperation
The ‘holy grail’ of robotics in terms of its importance for socio-economic benefits, is in developing robots that work safely alongside humans. By creating an artificial ‘skin’ for the robot, a skin with flexible sensors that detect points of contact, interaction capabilities improve. More importantly, the stretchable material of this skin does not interfere with the robot’s mechanics.
Another advance in robotics that is key to shaping Industry 4.0, is in the development of a user-friendly programming system, which allows programming by physical demonstration, essentially tracking and copying movements. This means robots can be intuitively trained by non-experts. The upshot of this for the industry is that businesses can use and instruct robots effectively without the need for hiring specialist programmers.
A very exciting aspect of the project was the development of robust control techniques for wearable assistive robots, specifically exoskeletons. Such exoskeletons, with assistive components strapped on to a worker’s arms, legs and torso, have the potential to reduce physical strain for workers in industrial settings when carrying out physically demanding tasks. These exoskeletons have the potential to reduce the risk of injury (and negate subsequent claims for injury settlements) and will be a welcome relief for many workers with physically demanding jobs in industrial settings.
Outcomes of the science and the next steps in research in the field of robotics
The SMART-E project has pushed the state of the art further in the development of embodied intelligence, bio-inspired manipulators, the synthesis of modular robots, the design of exoskeletons and the control of rigid and flexible manipulators.
The team has published extensively (approximately 70 papers) in high impact journals and conferences including Soft Robotics, International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS) and the International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) and has registered several patents.
More importantly, the project has played a vital role in the research and training support given to a new generation of pioneering researchers and developers in the field of industrial robotics.
Many of the research fellows have been recruited by world-class research organisations and businesses, where they will continue in their research into advanced robotics and automation solutions. The results of the research are used to improve automation and robotics solutions for the food and aerospace sectors.
We believe that the results we have achieved will allow European manufacturing companies to adapt their production processes to the trends that will define Industry 4.0. Robotic and automation solutions will ensure Europe’s competitiveness in the years ahead.
Acknowledgement: The SMART-E project was supported by the EU FP7 Marie Sklodowska Curie Programme for Doctoral Training (Project ID: 608022). For more info on the Programme, please go to: https://ec.europa.eu/research/mariecurieactions/
Copyright Professor Samia Nefti-Meziani
EU Research SUM18/P48
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