June 15, 2017      

We expect to find German robots mostly in industrial automation such as automotive manufacturing, but the reality is changing fast and has implications for global robotics.

As my previous article discussed, German robots are global leaders because of a forward-thinking approach to regulations that prepares for accidents, deals with surveillance, and delegates liability.

In this part, I look at several core themes that are bubbling in Germany’s robotics sector. These themes, such as frugal robotics, will lead German robotics into the future and help the country not only stay at the edge of innovation, but also grow its influence globally.

Low-cost cobots mark German shift

Last December, Munich-based startup Franka Emika GmbH made headlines for its robotic arm. The Franka collaborative robot, or cobot, was created with two goals in mind: accuracy and cost.

German robots include the affordable Franka arm.

The Franka robotic arm combines German engineering with a lower price than that of competitors.

Not only can Franka execute a number of “high-stress” tasks, but it also costs a $10,500, a third as much as competitors’ arms.

With the global cobot market expected to grow 60% between 2016 to 2022, from $100 million to $3.3 billion, could Germany’s Franka be the arm adopted by factories in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East?

Several years ago, the European Union funded a project called “SMErobot” with the objective of developing “affordable, modular, and interactive robots that are easy to install.” Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA was the main school driving the project.

Both Franka and SMErobot point to a shift. German robots have traditionally been advanced and expensive. But to break into new markets and deal with growing competition from China, Japan, and South Korea, German companies are working hard to bring the capabilities of high-end robots to machines that cost substantially less.

Many countries that are studying the German robots model for Industry 4.0 could see frugal robotics as far more feasible than other approaches. In India and Africa, people are already developing alternatives to high-end drones, robot vacuum cleaners, and more.

New applications for German robots

Until now, robotics has revolved around the same equation: build hardware, integrate software, then perfect the combination. For example, robot arms from Rethink Robotics, Universal Robots, FANUC, and others may have different use cases, but they have similar components and programming.

Now, new frontiers are opening up, both in terms of capabilities and applications, and German robots are at the forefront of this.

In 2016, two professors from the Leibniz University of Hannover unveiled new technology at a conference in Sweden. The professors showcased “tissue” that allows robot arms to “feel pain.” This allows robot arms to avoid collisions in factories by retracting when these pain centers are touched.

Such reactions could make cobots that would be useful for surgical or household use.

Also last year, an EU-funded project called “L2TOR” began helping immigrant children learn German. Of an estimated 1 million refugees who entered Germany in 2015, 25% were children.

This huge influx of people has posed political, social, and economic problems for Germany — and all of Europe. Social robots could be part of the solution to at least the early education portion of this integration challenge.

Since robots don’t represent an ethnicity, religion, or some other demographic identity, they could help bypass any biases that would hinder children.

Testing tomorrow’s robots, today

Both local and global robotics companies have turned to Germany, using Europe’s largest economy as a testing ground for new ideas.

Last year, Ford Motor Co. completed cobot trials at its factory in Cologne.

Hermes tested delivery robots in three suburbs of Hamburg, and the French fashion company is now applying its findings to a new trial in the U.K. In March, U.S. pizza chain Dominos partnered with Estonia-based Starship Technologies to begin robotic deliveries in Hamburg.

As foreign companies test out new ideas in Germany, local businesses are following suit. Deutsche Post has been testing robots that follow human “leaders” and help carry heavy packages. A Deutsche Post executive said he believes deliveries could be automated within three to five years. In addition, German retailer Media Markt is testing robots for home deliveries in Dusseldorf.

While it makes sense that domestic companies would conduct trials close to home, why are international robotics suppliers choosing Germany as their testing ground?

One answer is because Germany is among the few Western nations that have both an advanced economy and a society that is receptive to automation. If these trials are successful, then companies can obtain feedback that is more specific and useful than in markets where people are not as receptive.

More on Global Robotics:

German robots set the pace for socioeconomic change

The next step is for companies adopting robotics is to change their business models. Again, Germany is where the precedent is being set. Sporting goods supplier Adidas has designed a “Speedfactory” in Ansbach, Bavaria, that would rely heavily on automation.

This announcement made headlines, not only because it threatened human workers in Adidas suppliers such as Indonesia and Vietnam, but also because it suggested that even as companies reshore manufacturing, local workers may not benefit as much as previously believed.

If Adidas is successful, robotics end users will have to address the apparent conflict between the promises of reshoring production and the possible reality of job displacement.

As German robots continue to evolve, the trends of frugality, new applications, and testing ideas will likely continue. As they affect the rest of the world, a new challenge emerges.

Is it safe to assume that innovations will continue without restriction? Do countries have a finite window of time to incorporate automation into their economies before they fall hopelessly behind or face an inevitable political backlash?

For many countries, the question isn’t whether Germany’s robotics influence will persist, but whether their strategies should view Germany as a trend-setter or a competitor.