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Success Story:

Manufacturing SMEs help develop innovative robotics family

Interview image

A world-class research consortium is working with small and medium-sized companies (SMEs) in the manufacturing sector to create a radically new type of flexible yet affordable innovative robot technology that European SMEs can use to compete against larger companies.

European robot experts have joined forces with component manufacturers, research institutes and universities in a consortium that will create a new generation of robotic systems for SMEs. SMErobot is a prestigious and challenging project, and marks the first time that Europe's leading robotics players have worked together in a joint research and development (R&D) initiative.

Traditionally, the cost and scale of modern robot technology has been out of reach of the average manufacturing SME operating, for example, a small foundry or fabrication business. Without the luxury of dedicated robotics expertise, SMEs have found standard, commercially available robots too inflexible, too big or quite simply too expensive.

SMErobot has not only developed a new breed of robot that SMEs can use to their own advantage - SMEs have also played a vital role in the technology's development. Says Martin Hägele, SMErobot's Coordinator and Head of Department for Robot Systems at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation (IPA) in Stuttgart, Germany:

'Right from the start, we knew it was important that SMEs should be operating at the heart of the project and shaping its strategy. So we established a European Economic Interest Group (SMEEIG), where SMEs would be supported to operate as end-users, or as a member of the SMEpool. Here, they'd fulfil the equally vital role of demonstrating to interested parties the fruits of our research and development working in a real SME environment,' he says. 'SMEpool provides a low-entry platform for linking SMEs to the project, and serves as a waiting room for a possible future entry into SMEEIG.'

A number of demonstrator sessions acted as the focal point of the consortium's recent appearance at Munich's AUTOMATICA 2008, the world's leading robotics and automation trade fair, where SMErobot received a huge amount of interest from the general public and media. 'These demonstrations had to be fully operational and professionally presented. Our appearance at the fair represented an important step for the project's implementation and evaluation phase,' says Hägele.

SMEproject is now in its fourth and final year (ending in February 2009). 'We certainly can state that our very ambitious goals - to perform extensive R&D towards a new family of robots and to exploit its potential for competitive SME manufacturing - have mostly been reached,' Hägele notes.

First results show that the robot solutions have been very well accepted. Well known SME-organisations (such as Cetim in France) have expressed strong interest in and support for the project's work and results. 'The entertaining video we produced to communicate the project's vision and research has been phenomenally successful, and it's now playing a role in industrial engineering and vocational training,' adds Hägele.

SMErobot development

Automatica: for a detailed description of some of the project's current results.

SMErobot video

SMEEIG: with an example workshop