Infineon Sets the Pace for Industry 4.0: Cooperation with Robotics Startups

As globalization and digitization increase, the term Industry 4.0 gradually takes on a lot more meaning. A buzzword becomes reality. Robotics is a crucial element in this development. Automated workflows, networked systems, and smart machines make production processes faster and more efficient and ensure maximum flexibility throughout the entire supply chain. Information about manufacturing processes is shared among sites around the world in real time. As a result, a global, smart, virtual factory of the future is created.

The evolution from industrial robot to cobot

The figures are clear, the trend is upward: in 2016, the overall market for robots worldwide was $40 billion, but this is predicted to rise to $87 billion by 2025. By 2019, the worldwide installed basis of robots used in industrial applications will grow by 12 percent per annum. The development that began with traditional industrial robots is now continuing with cobots (collaborative robots). When robotics was still in its infancy, the focus for many robots in the industrial environment was the mass production of goods.

But now, these traditional industrial robots are increasingly being replaced by or enhanced with collaborative robots. Increasing by more than 23 percent to 2020, cobots are one of the fastest growing robot segments.

Safety for humans

In the past, traditional industrial robots were very expensive and required time-consuming process integration: only a few selected experts were able to program them. Very few changes could be made to their functions or the range of tasks they carried out. In addition, the lack of “sensitivity” limited the areas in which the robots could be used and necessitated safety measures, such as fences or other barriers. The reason: collisions with people working in the factory could be prevented only with strict spatial separation of humans and machines.

Human-robot interaction

Cobots move freely like a human arm and have a sense of touch similar to humans which enables safe human-robot interaction. Integrated collision recognition and prevention makes programming of complex procedures simpler. An intuitive, simple to operate programming interface allows process integration within just a few minutes. The use of sensors supports interactive learning with a high degree of flexibility. Cobots handle certain tasks independently.

The possibilities of digitization

Digitization enables programmed workflows to be shared with other cobots via the network. Most collaborative robots are soft and without edges to minimize the risk of potential injuries in their interaction with humans, even in cases of direct contact.

Cobots: Infineon as a user and developer

In the context of robot technology, Infineon has an exceptional position: on the one hand, the company uses robots in production and, on the other hand, with its extensive portfolio it supplies the components for this technology. This position allows a special perspective on the segment, from both customer and user aspects. The results are an extensive system understanding for new products and the possibility to offer complete integrated solutions.

As a producer and supplier of semiconductors, Infineon provides its customers with the crucial element within Industry 4.0. This is used in many areas:

  • Data is captured by sensors, processed by microcontrollers, and realized physically by power semiconductor devices
  • Chip-based security solutions protect critical data, such as information about calibrating the robot
  • Special 3-D camera radar systems simplify interaction between humans and machines with smart object localization, scanning the surroundings, gestures, and voice recognition

Digitization in Infineon’s plant in Dresden, Germany

As a user of the new technological options, Infineon has acquired some important knowledge over the past years: the plant in Dresden, which has existed for more than 20 years, has a level of automation of 92 percent. More than 200 robots assist the employees there. Dresden is the location with the highest level of digitization and has already successfully implemented many aspects of Industry 4.0. Humans and machines work at full throttle around the clock on 365 days per year.

Automation increased productivity by almost 70 percent. Despite this high level of automation, at 2,000, the number of employees has remained constant over the years. The increased level of automation created capacities for constant optimization of process planning and continuous innovation.

Even in the future, human employees will be irreplaceable due to their individual experience and creativity so that they can continue to advance and optimize areas such as innovation, quality management, and systematic problem solving.

Since 2011, Infineon employees have been prepared and trained to handle the changes and challenges associated with Industry 4.0. Less skilled jobs were replaced with new, highly skilled ones, such as data analysis and product development. The individual strengths of employees and machines are combined. To put it in a nutshell: humans and robots work with each other, not against each other.

Initiatives and cooperation agreements with startups: Infineon and cobots

Europe’s largest research initiative to date in the field of Industry 4.0 – the Productive4.0 project – was launched in the middle of 2017. Coordinated by Infineon, more than 100 partners from 19 European countries are working on the digitization and networking of industry. These include companies such as BMW, Bosch, Philips, and Volvo as well as leading research facilities, for example, the Fraunhofer Society and TU Dresden.

Benefits of cooperation agreements with startups

To keep pace with developments in the fields of Industry 4.0 and cobots and to continue its active role in helping shaping the digital future, Infineon is increasingly working together with startups. Startups have properties that are often lacking in established companies or that are too cumbersome because of rigid processes:

  • Pronounced creativity
  • Fresh ideas for the increasing digitization
  • Fast, pragmatic approach with no long drawn out coordination loops
  • Freedom to think outside the box

International cooperations

Infineon supports startups in Germany and also in Silicon Valley on various levels:

on the one hand, with its wealth of experience, its knowledge of global markets, its system understanding, its customer network, and the expertise that enables a company to scale up ideas and concepts and roll out products worldwide successfully with the necessary degree of quality.

On the other hand, Infineon gives young engineers and business owners access to new technologies in the areas of sensors, microcontrollers, and power semiconductor devices. Based on this, they can then implement their own ideas and innovations in real marketable products.

The experiences are then shared. This allows talented people to inspire one another and be innovative. In return, Infineon gets valuable feedback for its own product development. Infineon also supports facilities and initiatives like the Digital Product School in Munich, Germany to promote talent in the areas of digital innovation and entrepreneurship.

The Franka Emika startup

One example for this is the cooperation with the Franka Emika startup in Munich, Germany. Franka Emika was established in 2016 and delivered its first robots at the end of 2017. The startup specializes in developing, designing, and marketing sensitive, efficient, and inexpensive cobots.

(Image source: Franka Emika)

The vision of the founders: robots should become a generally accessible multifunction tool with humans at the center of their development. The company develops lightweight, sensitive, and fast robots. They are programmed in just a few minutes via an interface that is operated intuitively.

The robot’s human co-worker simply has to demonstrate what actions the robot has to carry out. The machine learns from this and can use the knowledge that it acquires independently for other tasks and processes. It is not only this capability that puts the cobots from Franka Emika ahead of conventional industrial robots. There is a huge potential in areas outside traditional industry. Cobots are also interesting for companies that are not involved in the classic robot environment (mass production, etc.).

(Image source: German Future Prize)

German Future Prize 2017

In 2017, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier awarded the developers from the Munich-based startup the German Future Prize. The prize is worth €250,000. The prize was awarded to Professor Sami Haddadin, Director at the Institute of Automatic Control, Leibniz University Hanover, Dr. Simon Haddadin, Managing Director of Franka Emika GmbH, and Sven Parusel, Chief Engineer at Franka Emika.

During the award ceremony, Professor Sami Haddadin said that

robotics and artificial intelligence could solve many problems of a modern society, such as demographic change and a lack of skilled workers.”

Professor Sami Haddadin
(Image source: Franka Emika)

Panda from Franka Emika is a seven-axis robotic gripper with a range of 80 centimeters which combines ease of operation with high levels of agility and sensitivity. The design and user interface allow intuitive programming and flexible applications. This enables simple integration, for example, in automated processes, at a fraction of the price that would normally be required for robot applications such as this. The developers themselves see Panda as a smart tool that can help people in various industries carry out many different tasks.

With regard to production, Panda can be used in a laboratory just as easily as in a logistics company. The spectrum includes assembly tasks, pure transportation of objects, and device tests. No software is needed for operation, navigation is via the user interface, which can be opened from all common web browsers.

The name “Garmi” comes from the place where the robot will be used: in 2018, the robot will be tested in an assisted living facility for seniors in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. Attached to the body of the 1.40-meter tall robot are two “Panda” grippers. At the start of the test phase, Garmi will be remote-controlled and continuously monitored.

The robot moves on wheels. It is designed to help older people manage their everyday lives by carrying out tasks such as operating the microwave oven, emptying the dishwasher, and opening the front door. Delivering food trays as well as providing assistance in case of an emergency is planned in the residential facility.

Dr. Simon Haddadin hopes that Garmi will be able to provide considerable relief for care-givers so that they have more time for actual care and emotional support. The robot assistant will also help older people live independently in their own home for longer.

Franka Emika and Infineon

Franka Emika uses solutions and products from Infineon in its robots. The two companies also share expertise to promote development of cobots in the future.

The Kewazo startup

The first idea to develop a smart robot scaffold component transportation system came about in March 2016 within the scope of a two-week course for young business people held at the Technical University of Munich (Germany). The idea was further developed in 2017. A business idea evolved. The thinking behind it was that traditional scaffold assembly is extremely inefficient, time consuming, and dangerous as more than 80 percent of the time is taken up transporting scaffold components during assembly.

(Image source: Kewazo)
(Image source: Kewazo)

To solve this problem, the startup developed a robot system that can move horizontally and vertically during the assembly process to deliver scaffold components to the right place. The robot is easy to install and move. Even large scaffolds can be erected by just two people.

This reduces assembly costs by at least 30 percent. At the same time, assembly speed can be increased by more than 40 percent, as the horizontal transport by the robot allows a constant flow of material. Automation of the risky transportation activities will also reduce the accident rate. The goal of the next development step: Kewazo will be able to erect scaffold completely autonomously.

Later, it will also be possible to use Kewazo in other scenarios. For example, the robot could help lay roof tiles or bricks. It is also conceivable that it could be used in painting and building insulation work. Kewazo could also take over transportation tasks in warehouses or help contractors install solar cells on roofs.

Collaboration with Kewazo

Infineon supports Kewazo with a complete electronic hardware infrastructure – including motor controls via senors and microcontrollers and a hardware-based security solution that enables safe operation of the robot and protects KEWAZO’s critical IP. Kewazo’s founders did not have to concern themselves with choosing and assembling the suitable electronic components and could thus focus completely on programming and optimizing their project. The first prototype of the robot, based on components from Infineon, was ready for testing after 6 weeks.

(Image source: Kewazo)

Infineon and Wandelbots

Wandelbots has its roots in Dresden, Germany. It is the first startup to come from the “Smart Systems Hub” research project at TU Dresden. When six graduate students from the department of software technology at TU Dresden received very positive feedback for their concept at technology trade fairs, they decided in 2016 to establish a company based on this concept. At the end of 2017, Wandelbots reached the final of the prestigious innovation contest “Tech Crunch Disrupt Battlefield“ with its project.

The robot programming project

(Image source: Wandelbots)

The idea is based on a thesis on the subject of wearables. From this, the graduate students developed a concept in which smart clothing is used to control robots so that people with no programming experience can also program machines. Background: the shortage of IT experts within the scope of digitization. In the IT industry, 60 percent of companies are looking for programmers so that they can remain competitive in the digital age.

As a solution, the founders of Wandelbots developed a sensor jacket with the help of which a robot can follow and learn the required movements without the need for special tools or programming techniques. The human co-worker demonstrates the movements and activities. The robot learns these movement sequences automatically and then fine tunes and/or optimizes them.

The time and costs for programming robots are drastically reduced and new tasks can be implemented in just a few minutes. The sensors of the robot and external sensors capture the properties of the surroundings during the training. This enables the robots to quickly adapt automatically to changing situations.

The collaboration

(Image source: Wandelbots)

Because of Wandelbots's extensive knowledge in the field of controlling robot systems, Infineon began a collaboration to evaluate alternative sensor technology based on 3D time-of-flight cameras. The aim is to create a more efficient and more cost-effective sensor platform that enables navigation of mobile robot platforms in changing environments with a minimum number of sensor components.

Initial tests in Infineon’s clean room in Dresden were very promising. By capturing the surroundings in 3D, structures, such as partially open drawers that projected beyond traditional scanners and could not be successfully identified as obstacles in the past can now be identified and avoided. The objective: by identifying different obstacles, robots should be able to move around more safely in production-related workplaces, using a minimum number of sensors and be robust and durable when carrying out their tasks.

Infineon and voice control: cooperation with XMOS

XMOS is a leading provider of voice and audio solutions for the consumer electronics market and IoT devices, such as smart assistants. In 2017, Infineon and XMOS presented a solution that can distinguish between a speaking person and an artificial sound source. Microphones to recognize presence and gestures and radar and microphone sensors from Infineon are used.

These sensors recognize the position of the speaker and his or her distance from the microphones. Voice processing technology from XMOS is being used to capture speech.

Infineon and artificial intelligence: the Roboy project

Infineon is supporting the Roboy project in which artificial intelligence in robotics is being researched. The mechanical skeleton and muscle functions of the human body will be imitated with the help of motors, joints, wires, and cables. The aim of the Roboy project is to develop a humanoid robot with a body that is as similar to that of a human being as possible in terms of movement, cognition, and sensitivity.

(Image source/ copyright: Creative Commons Licence)

This will provide an understanding of the movement sequences of the human body. For this purpose, a platform for robot development was established that brings students, scientists, companies, and artists together.