Right from science fiction. Factories which run themselves, ships that travel operated by GPS, energy systems that optimize production and storage from different and coordinated sources, robots that learn new jobs and are rented out for limited time. Now all this is commercially available. The era of automation is here. And the Hannover Fair proved it, with it’s April 25 to 29 exhibit covering the wide range of robotics, automation equipment, smart energy systems – for the first time, having as partner the United States of America.

At the Hannover Fair, industrial robotics and computer systems went hand in hand. More or less, as Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Barak Obama did when they opened the event, where 5,200 exhibitors took part, 400 more than the previous edition in 2014. Mostly from Germany, China, the USA, Italy, Turkey, and the Netherlands.

Some examples of the systems shown at the Fair:

Rethink Robotics presented Sawyer, that makes automation interactive, safe and cost-effective. Sawyer is agile, thoroughly adaptable to real-world variability in the production area, weighs 19 kilograms and has a reach of up to 1,260 millimeters, which enables it to work both in tight spaces and at work cells designed for humans. Its compliant motion helps it “feel” its way into fixtures or machines. Sawyer is capable of learning and achieves an entirely new level of repeatability for the robotics sector, accurate to +/-0.1 millimeters. It can even be used in close proximity to human “colleagues” without any concerns. At the Fair it performed machine loading, packing and checking tasks.

Berlin-based robotics pioneer Matthias Krinke created the world’s first temporary employment agency for robots, Robozän GmbH i.G. It provides humanoid robots for temporary work. “Our new concept for making the working environment more flexible significantly boosts Europe as a manufacturing location and responds to the increasing individualization of products and smaller production runs,” said Krinke , who not only is the director of the firm, but also its only human staff member. Robozän pays a monthly salary at the current minimum wage of EUR 8.50 per hour to the provider. The benefits for the end customer from using robots as temporary workers are clear: once the robot has completed a virtually negligible induction phase, it can work 24 hours a day 7 days a week.

The Leibniz Institute for New Materials (INM) of Saarbrücken presented its Gecomer structures with improved adhesion of up to 20 kilograms per 25 square centimeters. “Artificially produced microscopic pillars known as gecko structures can stick to objects using just physical interaction. The adhesion can be switched on and off by mechanically manipulating these pillars. This means that items can be lifted and released both quickly and very precisely,” explained Karsten Moh.

eMIR is a platform testing new e-Navigation and assistance systems for maritime transport.

The acronym stands for eMaritime Integrated Reference Platform, an initiative of the German maritime industry for improving safety and efficiency. e-Navigation forms the framework for developing assistance systems for coordinating evasive maneuvers to avoid collisions and for new system architectures for the seafaring vessels that will in future navigate their own courses.

EMIL stands for Electro Mobility through Inductive charging. In Braunschweig, a number of different bus stops have already been equipped to create the infrastructure for recharging electric buses using this non-contact process. The vehicles are recharged through an inductive charging system integrated into the vehicle undercarriage while they wait at the stops. The technology, dubbed Emilia, has also been tested for cars. The charging capacity amounts to 20 kW, which makes it possible to recharge electric vehicles very quickly. The vehicle is equipped with a coil system (secondary coil) on its undercarriage, while another coil system (primary coil), which is built into a recess in the road, is installed at the charging station. The primary coil uses a converter to create a magnetic field which transmits the energy through the road surface and the air space between road and vehicle undercarriage right into the vehicle, recharging the battery.

In order to improve interaction between humans and machines, and prevent accidents when they work together, laser scanners constantly monitor the hazard zone and halt a machine if a person gets too close. However, optical sensors don’t always achieve reliable results under varying light conditions – and when smoke, dust or fog get in the way. Therefore researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Solid State Physics IAF proposed a compact, modular-design 360° radar scanner , which works with millimeter waves that are reflected by the objects to be observed, such as people. If several radar units are used, an object’s location in the room can also be determined, along with its direction of movement. And because the IAF’s 360° radar can also penetrate optically opaque material, it can spot an employee even if there are boxes, cardboard walls or other obstacles in the way.

Stäubli’she” cleaning robots are designed to withstand extreme conditions. The “he” designates the humid environment versions of Stäubli’s six-axis robots for use in wet rooms and other situations involving direct contact with liquids and the risk of splashing. The system is so user-friendly that it should only take a couple of minutes to program the cleaning procedure for new components.

The ActiveCockpit, a new manufacturing information system, gathers all relevant data from a production line and visualizes it in real time directly on the line. This allows employees to identify deviations in manufacturing much sooner and respond immediately to correct them.

Robot programming software ArtiMinds Robot Programming Suite supports a wide range of robot models and makes robot programming simple, both online and offline. For example, force-controlled assembly processes, such as peg-in-hole, contacting, alignment, centering and safe grasping and releasing, can be programmed in mere minutes. And once created, programs can be flexibly reused.

“Now the task at hand – said Dr. Friedhelm Loh, Chairman of the Hannover Fair Exhibitors’ Advisory Board – is to implement the available solutions and give shape to the associated business models”. And mostly the products shown in the Fair are already commercializable. The mood in the business sector was optimistic, with more than 60% of exhibitors rating their industry’s situation as ‘good’ or better.

This year’s Fair attracted over 190,000 visitors (up from 175,000 in 2014 as the last event of comparable scope). More than 50,000 of them came from abroad – an increase of some 25 percent over 2014. With 6,000 visitors coming from China, the People’s Republic topped the list among foreign nations, second only to Germany as the host country. The visitor tally for the rest of Europe was 30,000.

A special section regarded women: a total of 1,400 women and men took part in WoMenPower congress, which featured an array of talks, workshops and seminars on career issues, promising strategies for success and innovative employment models.

A special jury awarded three prizes.

The first went to WHN Technologies GmbH from Grabenstätt in Bavaria. Their X-Arm robotic hand comprises a modular multi-axle module that is located at the end of a manually guided manipulator and can be freely adjusted and rotated in all three spatial directions. This means that tools or other loads fitted to the robotic hand can be precisely maneuvered to any chosen position. The combination of manipulator and industrial robotic arm allows complex and varied assembly tasks to be executed semi-automatically with extreme ease and flexibility. The X-Arm’s main area of application is in the automotive industry, but there is also considerable demand in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. WHN Technologies’ robotic hand is already being put to good use at two locations in Bavaria: at the BMW plant in Dingolfing and at Heidenhain in Traunreut.

Second place went to pi4 robotics GmbH from Berlin, which entered a humanoid robot named workerbot3. This robot is used for manufacturing, handling and inspection tasks where a high level of flexibility is required. Two cooperative arms enable it to carry out complex movements efficiently. Alongside universal usability, one advantage of workerbot3 is that it permits cost-effective production in Europe. The “3” in the product name stands for third generation. In contrast to its predecessors, the current robot features stereo camera systems in its arms in order to register the 3D position of products, thus enabling corrections to be made to the position of the arms if necessary. The loading capacity per arm is ten kilograms with an arm length of 1.3 meters. The robot, which does not have to be programmed, can be taught to carry out new tasks. The product is available on the market.

Workerbot, by pi4 robotics
Workerbot, by pi4 robotics

FARO Europe GmbH & Co. KG from Korntal-Münchingen in Baden-Württemberg was awarded third place for its innovation FARO FRIM. FRIM stands for Factory Robo Imager Mobil. It is a collaborative mobile robotic platform for 3D measurement in manufacturing and laboratory environments. This product is ready for operation in just a few minutes – and without any programming. As a mobile platform, it enables measurements at virtually any manufacturing location. The measurement processes for analyzing objects and generating 3D object data are carried out automatically. FARO FRIM is the first mobile 3D measurement platform with a collaborative robot that integrates all the necessary components. It can be operated without additional devices. Its target markets are the automotive industry, the aviation and aerospace sectors and mechanical engineering. Following real-world testing in industrial applications, the product is now in the market launch phase.

So, here we are: maybe not tomorrow, but in a matter of years, most of factory works – and not only, also works in agriculture and large part of the white collar works – robots will be able to replace human labor. The questioin then arises: what will happen of those who used to work for a living?

Over and over similar questions arose in history, ever since slavery was abolished and industry expanded it fields of operation. We are on the verge of a new industrial revolution. It will be up to politics and statesmanship to confront and solve the challenges that this situation presents.

In order to find the right answers, one shall remember that mankind invented the machines, in order to free itself from hard labor. Not in order to make the human being into a function of the machines.



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