The Most Important Robot Component: Humans

What benefits do robots bring? What is the role of humans in this relationship/partnership, and how can we live it peacefully? These and other topics were discussed at the Messe Frankfurt Conference entitled “Robot and automation: the challenges for integration”, held on November 14th, 2019. There robot makers had the chance to exchange views about the hottest topics in the sector and talk about the opportunities and challenges
of the future.

by Rossana Pasian

“Robot and automation: the challenges for integration”: this is the title of the conference, organized on November 14th, 2019 by Messe Frankfurt at the Sole 24 Ore headquarters in Milan, where the players of the mechatronics and robotics sector gathered to talk about the challenges, victories, and opportunities that they are facing.
After a very lively 2018, which showed a 27% increase in the machine tool sector, 2019 has been under the sign of uncertainty and hasn’t repeated the results of the previous year: on the contrary, investments and growth showed a slowdown. But this does not mean that there is no possibility for expansion: according to Messe Frankfurt, an annual growth of 12% is expected between 2020 and 2022.

Is Italy afraid of technology?
In 2018, Italy ranked seventh for robot sales worldwide and ninth for robot installations. Despite this figures make us understand the importance of robotics for our economy – machine tool export is the first Italian market – fear and mistrust of the mechatronics and robotics sectors seem to persist. During the “Robotics Conversation”, the first appointment of the event, Marco Bentivogli, General Secretary of the Federazione Italiana Metalmeccanici (FIM-CISL) reminded that Italy is still a “technophobic” country: we keep thinking that robotics, and technology in general, means less jobs, and it is therefore to be fought. Many entrepreneurs resist even to long-established systems: 4 out of 10 claim that their work does not require the Internet. Journalists and the Government, who find in robots a new enemy to fight, are not helpful either” commented Mr Bentivogli.
In this context, Mr Bentivogli said, “education plays a key role, but it is necessary to reform it and renew the programs. School must look at what happens in real time in the industry and research world, not necessarily only in Italy, imitating the German pact for digital school, for instance. We also need to create re-skilling programs for over 50 years old, so that these people are not left behind and be able to find a new job more easily. This does not concern only external training: it is important – again according to Mr Bentivogli – that companies equip themselves with internal skill-monitors, in order to monitor the skills of their employees”.
Arturo Baroncelli, Counsellor at SIRI, and Paolo Rocco, member of the I-RIM directive board, who also participated in the conversation, agreed with Marco Bentivogli, highlighting the importance of a collaboration between robots and humans and how to develop it. Arturo Baroncelli reported the statistics of the robotics sector in Italy, which show that the sentiment of the sector players about AI and robotics is in sharp contrast with the general sentiment in Italy: 54% of workers are in favor of this technology, and, in this percentage, 48% do not work in robotized companies but is in favor of their use. Why this? Because, as Paolo Rocco said, a robot can balance the physical effort, be helpful in collaborative assembly, improve the operator’s safety: smart robotics and collaboration are the two key concepts here. Knowing very well what are the robot tasks and the human operator’s tasks, so that they collaborate in favor of the human, not the opposite.

The focus on packaging
This conversation was followed by the presentation of the study “Mapping on the challenges and potential of robotics in the industrial environment: packaging focus in the pharma and beauty sector”, by Giambattista Gruosso, Professor of the Politecnico di Milano; the presentation was attended by Davide Burratti, OCME Research & Development Manager, and Luca Favero, Automation Engineering Group Coordinator at Marchesini Group. The study found that in Italy robotics is used, right after the metalworking and automotive industry, in the food and pharma sector. 38% of the interviewed companies use robots for packaging, followed by 31% who use them for machine production and 31% for other operations. A very interesting fact is where / how robots are used: not so much in research and development departments, while for 56% they are massively used on production lines and processes, proving that companies are realizing the value robots add, even if the use of traditional technology far exceeds the collaborative technology. Looking at the specializations in detail, we go from product assembly to end-of-line handling and palletizing.
But artificial intelligence, emphasizes Luca Favero, is becoming increasingly important: as many as 3 companies out of 4 claim to integrate AI algorithms in robotic systems and machinery. Marchesini Group, for example, has managed to synchronize the robots with the machines, especially for pick & place and handling, so as to make the process smoother and faster.
Flexibility and collaboration with robots is important to improve the ergonomics and health of the operators: this is the opinion of Davide Burratti, who stressed that, also for these OCME factors, he chose to use the first robots already in the 80s and 90s. They can automate certain processes, relieve the operator of repetitive and medium-fast activities, which are therefore risky. So, again, the idea of human-centered robotics, the collaboration of robotics for humans, and the uselessness of fear towards it.

Humans are the cornerstone of robotics
In the second part of the event, two round tables were held, where robot manufacturers were able to confront and present their work. The first involved Michele Pedretti from ABB, Pier Paolo Parabiaghi from Fanuc, Alberto Pellero from Kuka, Alessio Cocchi from Universal Robots, and Alessandro Redavide from Yaskawa Italia; the second was attended by Marco Busi from Comau Robotics, Marco Filippis from Mitsubishi Electric Europe, Marco Spimpolo from Omron Electronics, and Flavio Marani from Tiesse Robot – Kawasaki Robotics.
Once again, the importance of a people-centered perspective and training new skills to cope with digital and mechatronic transformations was recalled. Some companies, in fact, are equipping themselves with in-house academies, such as the Turin office of Yaskawa Italia, which provides support not only to customers and technicians, but also to students, as Alessandro Redavide said. Michele Pedretti emphasized the need for specialized technicians able to support customers: a high level of training is therefore essential.
Both Pier Paolo Parabiaghi and Alessio Cocchi agreed on robotics as a safety and ergonomics improver, especially in the assembly sector, where it can improve the quality of work for operators and limit injuries and accidents.
The concept of safety linked to robotics was also crucial in the second round table: Flavio Marani spoke of Safe Robotics, that is robotics based on safety sensors. For Marco Filippis, too, this plays a key role in collaborating with robots: they must adapt to constantly changing surrounding conditions, without harming humans. Other things to take into account for safety are predictive maintenance and data analysis, which can help prevent problems keeping the system safe. In this perspective, Marco Spimpolo speaks, more than of collaboration, of harmony between humans and machines: it is essential that they manage to coexist in a balanced and harmonious way. This is because the robot is taking on new roles in industrial and everyday life, but also new forms. Marco Busi told how Comau put the robots on humans, creating exoskeletons to support the worker and reduce physical effort.
Humans and human manufacturing remain central: simplifying work, but preserving human knowledge. For example, Flavio Marani revealed how in Kawasaki robots are now capable to learn from humans, especially on assembly lines, and in turn they can program other robots: without human knowledge, however, none of this is possible.

Challenges and opportunities for 2020 and the years to come
The future, despite the slowdown, is full of new possibilities for robotics, and above all new applications. Marco Spimpolo narrated the increasingly strong importance it is gaining in intralogistics, especially in warehouses with a lot of material where mobile robots can save time in research and transport. This application is also more and more successful in offices, where small mobile robots can transport documents and folders from one employee to another. But also the applications in microbiology, once again linked to safety: they can support the validation of analyzes, eliminating human error. Above all, they totally eliminate the risk of bacterial contamination.
In conclusion, there are still many challenges to face, not only to improve the human-machine relationship, but also to make people understand that this relationship is possible and does not diminish humans.