Interview with Anzhela Preissler, Dr. Marija Radic and Dr. Sandra Dijk

“The use of collaborative system solutions requires entrepreneurial courage.”

Spaces where humans and robots work together and are not separated from each other by partitions or protective fencing are referred to as collaborative human-robot work spaces. Currently, such work spaces can mainly be found in large-scale enterprises – even though small and medium-sized companies can also benefit from human-robot collaborations (HRC). A Fraunhofer IMW team headed by Anzhela Preissler, the head of the Professional Development and Competence Management Unit, Dr. Marija Radić, the head of the Price and Service Management Unit, and Dr. Sandra Dijk, an associate researcher with the Price and Service Management Unit, is involved in the collaborative project KUKoMo, which helps medium-sized manufacturing companies to establish HRC work spaces. KUKoMo is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).

The Science Year 2018 will focus on the future of work. Dear Ms. Preissler, how can we imagine the jobs of the future in the medium-sized manufacturing industry?

Anzhela Preissler: In companies in the manufacturing industry, human-robot collaborations are increasingly less a vision of the distant future but rather a vision of the imminent future or already the reality. At the workplace of the future, man and robot will work hand in hand - this is a profound change in the work process that requires a willingness to adopt the new technology, and the acceptance by, and the corresponding qualifications of, the workforce.

In the KUKoMo joint project, you are developing a training concept that will provide information on collaborative work systems in a training and application center, test sample solutions and make qualification offers available to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). You have already talked about far-reaching changes in the work process: Which hurdles does a medium-sized enterprise that wants to use collaborative work systems have to overcome?

Anzhela Preissler: The use of collaborative system solutions requires entrepreneurial courage. Up until now, such technologies have been used primarily in large companies, mainly for economic reasons such as high batch sizes or standardized work sequences. HRC solutions must be particularly easy and intuitive to implement in small and medium-sized enterprises. The necessary previous knowledge for handling the robots must be imparted without great effort. For acceptance and successful work processes, it is crucial not only to train individual employees, but to make the entire workforce fit for the HRC solution.

Which changes in personnel development and management are necessary as a result? How do existing scientific concepts of didactics have to be changed or supplemented?

Anzhela Preissler: People, technology and organization must be viewed holistically in order to establish new forms of work. Our didactic approach therefore focuses primarily on making the organization of work conducive to learning and maintaining the action structures of the individual in HRC workplaces. The didactics and qualification measures must relate to the entire socio-technical system of the organization.

On the part of the employees, fear of job loss or uncertainty in the correct operation of the machines can outweigh their appreciation of the new technical possibilities. How do the measures you have developed help to reduce inhibition thresholds here?

Anzhela Preissler: The measures of the training and application center are not only designed for managers and executives, but also for the employees - workers, technicians, planners and programmers. Our guidelines for the respective measures are based on current ISO standards for service requirements for non-school education and training. It is important to us to develop quality criteria through standards. We would like to sensitize and inform all members of the organization. Individual and company-specific inhibitions and concerns can thus be specifically addressed through various forms of teaching and learning.

Dr. Radić, in the joint project your role is to assess the cost-effectiveness of collaborative assembly systems for SMEs in Germany. What added value can HRC work spaces offer small and medium-sized enterprises with limited financial resources which tend to be put off by high investment costs?

Dr. Marija Radić: Small and medium-sized companies can benefit from collaborative assembly systems - but have so far hardly invested in this potential. Economic efficiency is often a major obstacle. Two main arguments for using an HRC solution are time savings and quality improvement. Using robots, for example, enables for higher speed processes and ensures consistent product quality. Higher plant utilization is the result and this is decisive for profitable production. Cost reductions can be achieved, for example, by reducing waste or operating costs, as downtimes are minimized and performance is increased at the same time. Last but not least, ergonomically improved working conditions reduce absenteeism due to illness or accidents - an important argument, especially against the background of demographic change.

Which scientific methods do you use to determine the cost-effectiveness of HRC solutions?

Dr. Marija Radić: Dr. Sandra Dijk and I have developed a methodical procedure for determining the profitability of HRC solutions. The decision as to whether such a solution makes financial sense must always be based on a comparison between the two alternatives - manual and fully automated manufacturing. Since HRC solutions are long-term investments, we apply the method of life cycle costing. In order to take qualitative factors such as ergonomics into account, we have added a cost-benefit analysis to our life cycle costing approach.

The KUKoMo joint project will run until July 2018 - have you already noticed changes in the participating SMEs during the project? For example, does the acceptance of robot technologies increase when financial viability is demonstrated?

Dr. Marija Radić: Interestingly, all of the participating SMEs had a very high acceptance level right from the start. We have found that our method for financial viability analysis represents a vital decision-making aid from the company's point of view. After all, the acquisition initially involves considerable costs and SMEs in particular must of course carefully examine whether such an investment is financially viable.

Dr. Sandra Dijk: We are currently in a very exciting project phase in which we can apply and test our method of financial viability analysis to the SMEs involved. Specifically, we collect and evaluate data that enables the basis of our calculations, such as life cycle costs.

The era of collaborative work systems has only just begun. Think of artificial intelligence or bionics. In your opinion, what trends and what social and economic research needs do you see for human-robot collaborations in medium-sized companies in the future?

Anzhela Preissler: Technology sets the framework conditions for organization - technology that is undergoing changes means changing organizational framework conditions. Agility is an important keyword for SMEs. The flexibility of an organization depends on its members and their competences. Therefore, research on agile competence management is of interest in order to ensure that SMEs are able to innovate competitively. Informal learning processes in particular, in which learning and application contexts are identical, will become increasingly relevant in the future.

Dr. Sandra Dijk: When we talk about trends, the next generation of robots together with AI aspects is certainly an extremely exciting field of research. For instance, the question of how a robot that is capable of independent learning and makes suggestions on how an activity can be performed should be used. Another buzzword is deep learning. Of course, this vision of the future is accompanied by a lot of interesting questions that must be investigated - for example, how such a system affects labor productivity.