February 01, 2013
February 27 & 28, 2013
Lauffen on the Neckar
From nearby Geigersberg Hill the rustic village of Lauffen, just 30 miles north of Stuttgart, looks anything but a hotbed of robotics, but it is.
Schunk lives in Lauffen, a place where farmlands come right up to the edge of town and vineyards cover the hillsides; and where, if you are a robot in need of a good pair of hands or even an arm, then you’ve come to the right place.
Schunk GmbH is the biggest name in town by far and one of the biggest in the world for robotic end effectors: pneumatic and mechatronic grippers, fingered hands and the Schunk arm. Some refer to this 68-year-old maker of chuck jaws and precision tool holders as the Mercedes of robotic hands.
Every February for the past six years this tidy German tourist stop along the Neckar River reflects, in microcosm, the fervor in robotics that has overtaken Europe since the 2006 start of the European Commission’s 7th Framework Program for technological innovation. The 7th Framework is in its final year, transitioning to its successor program, Horizon 2020, beginning in 2014.
Both programs are big money events and super important to the future of the EU: the 7th Framework weighed in at €53B ($79.9B); and Horizon 2020, according to Thilo Brodtmann, director of EUnited Robotics in Belgium, will have €80B ($108B) in the till. That’s serious science and technology money, and the EU wants a big return on its investment.
European robotics in microcosm
For two days in late February, annually hosted by Schunk, the company presents Expert Days— officially, International Expert Days on Service Robotics—which has been running in parallel to the 7th Framework for six years.
Expert Days for 2013 not only mirrors what’s happening in robotics during the 7th Framework but also anticipates the move into Horizon 2020, which is all about transitioning from R&D activities into real-world commercialization and market applications for robots.
Henrik Schunk, managing partner of the family-owned company and son of the legendary industry dynamo, Heinz-Dieter Schunk, who took the company from a six-person operation into what it is today, sees a paradigm shift going on in robotics.
Already, he says, we know that robots are stronger, faster and more persistent than humans; however now there’s the added dimension that robots be flexible, intelligent and sensitive.
Accordingly, Schunk has seen his own business react to the demand with a dramatic shift from pneumatics to mechatronics, and more recently, Schunk GmbH has begun investigating bionic structures.
The way forward for robotics is very clear to him: service robots will quickly evolve into intelligent helpers possessing strength, speed, flexibility and intelligence. And, as he predicts: “They’ll sell like hot cakes.”
That robot evolution that’s now building toward commercialization is exactly the future that is driving Horizon 2020; and it is also the central topic for the fourteen world experts, a sizeable chunk of the worldwide Who’s Who in robotics, who will speak during Schunk’s 2013 Expert Days.
Commercialization for real-world products
That the EU—and host Schunk GmbH as well—are honing in on real-world applications and bringing robots to market is evident in the tightly knit set of speaker topics covering such subjects as, the future of industrial assembly; design of a low-cost, easy-operation robotic hand; service robots for healthcare; robot networks; advanced control robotics; and shared autonomy for a robot solving real-world household tasks.
All of which resonate with attendees, like first-timer (2012) Geoff Pegman from RURobots in the UK, who said he really appreciated how “industrialists and academics were brought together with an application focus,” a position which was echoed by Dr. Gurvinder Virk as “a fantastic combination that brought research into the real world as real products.”
Mind-amazing days in the countryside
Expert Days is a mini expo and conference minus the frenetic pace of jostling crowds, overwhelming variety and in-your-face sales pitches. It’s sales and promotion, for sure: Schunk gear is everywhere in the expo hall and Schunk agents jog from display to display totting a video camera in search of pro-Schunk commentary.
However, it’s all low-key promotion in a relaxed atmosphere where attendees, usually about a hundred or so, can hobnob with speakers, engage with colleagues from around the world and network their personal agendas.
In short, Expert Days is easily worth the €490 ($665) admission plus two days lodging in a hotel in nearby Heilbronn, where the company has arranged for special hotel discounts.
Schunk also provides, as a major convenience, shuttle bus transport to and from its newer facility at Brackenheim-Hausen, where the two-day conference and expo is actually held. It’s billed as being a scenic trek through the heart of the Zabergau wine area, but then again, it’s February and the greenery and grapes are long gone.
What Expert Days offers is a fantastic opportunity, briefly between Labor Day and Spring Break, to glimpse the future of robotics as it inexorably moves into a position of primacy, to immerse oneself in stunning new products coming to market, and to get face time with the people who are making some of it happen.
Although the company is obviously promoting itself and pushing its wares, the Schunk family is to be lauded for creating such an intelligent and elegant event. Few, if any, either in Europe or elsewhere, can be seen emulating anything even close to Expert Days.
And the location is fabulous. At the end of each mind-amazing day, one can always kick back at the Insel-Hotel Heilbronn on its island in the Neckar, savor a glass of local Katzenbeisser Trollinger and dream robot dreams, which is robotics at its best.