The Techcafé (an initiative by Mikrocentrum, among others) has already focused on robotics for SMEs over the past year. In fact, the enthusiasm for this topic was already evident during the first edition of Techcafé, which focused on robotics.
The Techcafé (with the topic of Robotics for SMEs) was filled with people who came to listen to a conversation between Mikrocentrum's High Tech Platform Manager Maarten Roos and four robotics specialists: Heico Sandee (CTO and founder of Smart Robotics), Mark Stappers (lecturer/researcher at Fontys), Wouter Kuijpers (Program Officer at TU Eindhoven), and Martin van der Have (Sales & Marketing Manager of ABB Robotics). Their message was twofold. On the one hand, they noted a significant backlog and as many obstacles around the introduction of industrial robots, but at the same time, their call to the present SMEs was to start using them. "It's like with the smartphone or PC," says Martin van der Have. "The first time always hurts. It's the same with robots. It won't be an instant success, but the learning curve that you go through that way will eventually get you where you want to be."
Move the business forward
He adds that it is wise not to go through this process alone. "Talk to parties that have done it before. Learn from them, make plans together. At some point, you will find out that it is doable and that you can even make money with it. Because ultimately, that's what it's all about as an entrepreneur: moving your business forward."
For Maarten Roos, seeing only two entrepreneurs raise their hand when he asked who is already working with robots in a full room is further proof of the value of a meeting like this. "It seems like SMEs are still cautious. Maybe they are waiting for the moment when, like with today's iPhone, everything becomes plug-and-play."
Higher ease-of-use in robotics is important
The four speakers agree with this. Van der Have: "Robotics is still in its infancy. We think a lot is already possible, but actually, that's still underestimated. We still have a lot of product development ahead of us. First, we need to ensure higher ease-of-use. Easier integration and operation of robots. The second step is in collaborative robotics, providing people with the opportunity to work together with robots. And the third area where there are many developments is around digitization of the company. This includes unlocking data and then doing something clever with it."
Robotics use cases needed
Wouter Kuijpers sees the task for science in improving the functionality of robots. "We want smarter robots, robots that will understand more and more from themselves. Robots that you can maybe give commands at a higher level. As a user, you don't have to teach a robot everything to ensure that the instructions are clear."
The university mainly needs many use cases, which they also hope to receive from SMEs. "What are the industry's exact desires? What are the requirements they have for robots? Then we will do the research. And of course, there will be results that we want to test as soon as possible. Also, in relevant use cases from SMEs." According to Kuijpers, the fact that the participation of companies is seen as a prerequisite in grant applications is an additional reason for SMEs to quickly delve into the matter.
Robotics use cases needed Wouter Kuijpers also sees the task for science in improving the functionality of robots. "We want smarter robots, robots that will increasingly understand on their own. That you may be able to give commands at a higher level. As a user, you don't have to teach a robot everything to ensure that the instructions are clear."
The university mainly needs many use cases for this, which they also hope to get from SMEs. "What are the specific industry demands? What are the requirements they place on robots? Then we will do the research. And of course, there will be results that we want to test as soon as possible. Also, in relevant use cases from SMEs." According to Kuijpers, the fact that the participation of the business community is seen as a plus in subsidy applications is an extra reason for SMEs to quickly immerse themselves in the subject.
Heico Sandee can talk about it extensively, also from his less positive experiences. "Back then we noticed exactly what we are also seeing here: there is a lot of knowledge about robots in science, but it is still relatively little used in practice. That was the basis for our idea of a 'temporary employment agency for robots.' We wanted to bring the technology to practice. But it was a bit disappointing because in practice, those robots are not yet that flexible. We ran into practical problems. From a distance, it always seems much simpler than in the harsh reality. We spent hours and days puzzling over the smallest details. Sorting books and putting them in a box sounds simple, right? But if two covers stick together, the whole system gets tangled up."
Details cause complexity
According to Sandee, it is the details that cause complexity. "And that also means that you hardly benefit from a generic interface, even though it would be interesting for your business. That general user interface actually missed the mark completely. But you only find out in practice." The result was that the idea of the temporary employment agency was abandoned and Smart Robotics now chooses specific markets. Five years later, there are about a hundred robots on the market. "With 75 employees, we are almost 1-on-1."
Growing pains in robotics make SMEs hesitant
obotics is a profession, Roos notes. "But do we have enough people in the Netherlands to exercise this profession?" Mark Stappers doesn't have to think long about it. "If you look to the future, it's really a problem. We will always have to think about how to involve more engineers in various activities. And that starts in primary school but also in retraining people who, for example, work on the assembly line now."
There are still quite a few hurdles for SMEs. In a world of high mix, low volume, the mass advantage often disappears, making it difficult to justify the investment. The growing pains they see around them also make entrepreneurs hesitant. Moreover, the robot is still mainly focused on the coarser tasks; the precision work that Brainport is so proud of is still a relatively unexplored area. On the other hand, the prospect of 24/7 production of products with unprecedented quality is tempting. Not to mention the cost savings that robotization will ultimately have to bring.
Determine the goal with robotization
"The goal you have with robotization is decisive in all those considerations," says Mark Stappers. "We often get the question of what a company can do with robotization. Like, 'we have a robot, and we want to automate, what now?' We always try to remove that question from the robot sphere first and find out what the processes in such a company are and what they actually want. Just having a pot of money and buying a robot, well, that's not enough. You really need an idea, also for the business. Our students act as executors of applied research in this regard."
Talent development and people essential for robotics success
The fact that SMEs want to wait and see a little, the four speakers understand all too well. Ease of use and robustness, including making the robots smarter, which are still "relatively dumb" at this stage of development, they all see as one of the most important challenges for the coming years. But people are needed for that, they say in unison. Researchers, developers, specialists, "if the Netherlands wants to maintain its reputation as a knowledge economy - and, to begin with, rise above Belgium in robot development - much more talent development is needed than we are showing now."
Interested in robotics? Then come to Vision, Robotics & Motion on June 7 and 8