Research Director DARWIN
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Integrating Physical, Digital Worlds to Improve Manufacturing
Manufacturing processes that are difficult to automate will, of course, require human labor – otherwise they would not be difficult to automate. Still, robots are often involved in such manufacturing processes, typically performing the dirtiest, most hazardous, and repetitive tasks – sometimes operating side-by-side with their human co-workers.
In recent years, robots have gained the ability to – by being programmed to – cooperate with humans without being confined to a cage. Cooperative robots – cobots – can work together with humans, and cognitive robots can anticipate human behavior and learn how to better relate to and assist humans.
“Safe interaction between robots and humans is crucial for increased automation of manufacturing processes. We need humans to understand how to fully utilize robots, and we need robots to constantly learn how to best interact with and work alongside humans,” says Nabil Belbachir.
Smarter, safer, sustainable
As Director of Research at NORCE, Belbachir is currently the coordinator of COGNIMAN, a 4-year, 11 million euros project funded by the European Commission. The project consortium includes 16 partners from seven countries.
“Our overall objective is to contribute to smarter manufacturing in various European industries. Smarter manufacturing includes a higher degree of automation in those difficult-to-automate processes,” says Belbachir.
By integrating simulations, digital twins, advanced sensoring, machine learning and cognitive robotics, COGNIMAN aims to develop and demonstrate a new concept of digital cognitive smart manufacturing. The concept will make production more flexible, cost-effective, safe, and sustainable.
Expanding the use of robots
Robots have had a tremendous impact on the efficiency and safety in factories around the world – from the automotive sector, which has the highest number of robots, to electronics, pharmaceuticals, and several other industries. Robots are perfect for tasks that are to be repeated thousands or millions of times, and for work in hazardous areas where humans should not be present.
“COGNIMAN focuses on processes that are less repetitive and human labor intensive, but still well suited for automation and robotics if done right,” says Belbachir.
It is not an easy task, he admits, to integrate the physical and digital worlds.
“Automated processes with humans in the loop are always challenging. Sometimes, it boils down to whether robots are accepted or not. The robot may be very effective, but if people don’t feel safe around it, they will not use it. If the technology is widely accepted, even incremental technology development can have a huge impact on an industry,” says Belbachir.
With a special focus on the human aspects, the COGNIMAN group of scientists includes an expert on human and ethical issues.
COGNIMAN comprises companies and researchers from Norway, Ireland, France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, and Italy. The project has pilots in four targeted manufacturing processes: glass fibre production (at 3B fiberglass in Norway), precision machining for large extended parts (at Goimek in Spain), additive manufacturing of medical implants (at Croom medical in Ireland), and steel production (at ABS in Italy).
The project is currently finalizing the detailed requirements of the four pilots and is setting up a final plan for development and demonstration of the new technologies. The requirements phase was accompanied by visits to the four pilot sites for understanding the case and conceptualizing the solutions.
Research Director DARWIN