Epson Win-A-Robot contest JURY MEMBER INTERVIEWS

Interview with Patrick Schwarzkopf Managing Director of the VDMA Robotics + Automation Association

Epson Win-A-Robot contest  JURY MEMBER INTERVIEWS

Your new co-worker – how robotics and automation technologies are shaping the workplace of the future

Patrick Schwarzkopf, Managing Director of the VDMA Robotics and Automation Association, has been working at the VDMA in Frankfurt since 1999. Having built up the VDMA Factory Automation Forum, and with past experience at EUnited Robotics, the European Machine Vision Association and the International Federation of Robotics, Patrick has a unique take on the role that robotics and automation technologies are playing in industry.

1. When did you first get involved in the robotics industry?

As a kid I loved “science kits” and constructing electrical gadgets. I also tried building a robot-like contraption using the Fischer Technik engineering kit, but it wasn’t a big success. In 1999 I joined the VDMA (German Engineering Industry Association) to build up the VDMA Factory Automation Forum, which had robotics at its core. I suddenly saw the real-life applications of robots from visiting factories, research centres and trade shows – it blew my mind.  

2. What is it about robotics/automation that really fascinates you?

It reflects human ingenuity. To be able to model a machine after the human arm, with the ability to take over tedious tasks with more strength and greater precision, is amazing. Robots can relieve people from repetitive and dull chores. There are many fascinating machines available to support business, but robots are unique in that they are so freely programmable. Within the boundaries of their workspace, you can determine the total movement of the robot flexibly just by using code, making robots the most universal devices.

3. What is the most exciting use of robotics and automation technologies that you have seen in recent years?

For me, it’s definitely the new robotics chapter of humans and robots being able to interact very closely and safely with each other. With this “human-robot collaboration” the robot is no longer just a machine working on its own behind a safety fence, but it becomes a kind of co-worker made of steel. It can perform a range of tasks, from holding heavy workpieces while the assembly worker fixes screws to handing workers pieces as they are needed.

4. What are the trends driving robotics in Europe?

I believe that robots and other technologies – such as wearables and augmented reality – will transform the workplace. With humans and technology able to interact much more comfortably and naturally, work is becoming much more interesting. The ability of robots to sense and react to their environments is better than ever before due to vision systems which enable them to see and recognise the correct level of force needed when touching a particular object. We might still be ten or so years away from robots with the dexterity needed to pick strawberries as well as a human can, but developments in sensing technologies are improving every day. Within boundaries, robots will become smarter, take on some degree of autonomy and self-optimization, become mobile and have the ability to move around the factory floor safely.

5. In which industries do you see robotics and automation technologies being used in the next 10 years?

In every sector of manufacturing – from cars to electronics. Whilst robots are already present in this industry, they will play a much bigger role in the coming years.

As well as manufacturing, robots will have a positive impact on a range sectors including logistics, energy and healthcare, complementing the value of human employees. We can already see that robots have become very important in logistics and warehousing, medical application, laboratories, and agriculture. Another exciting development is that service robots will increasingly appear in retail such as DIY stores. What’s not reported enough is the role that businesses, academics, governments and consumers are taking to encourage and expand the possibilities for the future of robots in the workplace.

6. What role do you believe the industry can play in advancing digital skills, as seen in this contest?

The robot is a unique piece of engineering because it’s so iconic. Not only is it easy to understand what a robot does, it can be combined with many other fascinating technologies such as machine vision, sensing, and gripping. They can be used in almost any place – factory, private home or public space. Isn’t that the ideal starting point for getting young people fascinated in the STEM subjects?

We expect the millennial generation, who already make up 50% of the world’s population, to fully embrace working alongside robots – and that’s who we need to focus on because they are the future workforce. Increased familiarisation with these technologies allows young people to get comfortable and understand how the application of robots can be a positive force in many aspects of life.

7. What do you hope to see from Epson’s Win-A-Robot contest?

I hope to see the creativity unleashed from young people and project groups who would not have been able to bring their ideas to life without the use of a robot. It’s great to see that Epson Europe are passionate about giving students who are interested in robotic technologies the opportunity to gain real-life, hands-on experience.