April 29, 2015      

Today was the first day of RoboBusiness Europe 2015 in Milan, Italy. Most sessions were well-attended; rather than recap all of them or delve into technical discussions, here are some snapshots from the third annual event:

  • “Disruptive Innovation: Take the Chance or Die.” This was the dramatic title of Claus Risager’s welcome address at RoboBusiness Europe 2015 this week in Milan, Italy. The event is part of Milan’s “Disruptive Week,” a series of events focusing on disruptive technologies, including robotics and the Internet of Things. Risager, director of Blue Ocean Robotics, said that robots will soon change everyone’s lives, but researchers, investors, and businesses need to act now to determine how those changes will come.

Bragging rights?

  • “Italy has the second largest robot market [in Europe] after Germany,” according to Rezia Molfino, president of SIRI, the Italian Association of Robotics and Automation. She noted that the country’s heavy robot users include industrial machinery, the chemical industry, and automakers such as Fiat-Chrysler.
  • Manufacturing is still a bit of a dirty word in the U.K.,” said Jeremy Hadall, chief technologist for automation at the Manufacturing Technology Centre. “People think they can just fire workers and replace them with robots, but we still need people.” Unlike Italy, the U.K. has just one company making robots for industrial automation, even as the continent looks to reindustrialization, said Hadall.
RoboBusiness Europe expo area

Part of the RoboBusiness Europe 2015 exhibition area.

Getting European robotics to critical mass

  • “Using robots generates more knowledge about robotics,” said Arturo Baroncelli, president of the International Federation of Robotics. He also listed instances where robots are the only viable solution and increasing robot density as reasons why China has taken the lead in industrial automation purchases. North America is apparently third in growth, behind China and Europe, according to Baroncelli.
  • “We have a vibrant multidisciplinary community … but research is not translating into [enough] innovative solutions or startups,” said Juha Heikkila, head of the robotics unit for the Directorate General for Communications Networks, Content, and Technology at the EC. Heikkila praised European development of autonomous systems and government financial support, but he observed that funding and links between academia and industry are not as strong as in the U.S.

Who will lead the way?

  • “By 2025, we predict that 60% of manufacturing, logistics, healthcare, and energy enterprises will have CROs,” predicted Remy Glaisner, CEO of Myria Research, referring to chief robotics officers. They’ll be needed to address financial responsibilities, transformational technology, and operational issues, similar to the chief information officer or chief operating officer, he said. Glaisner also predicted growth of robotics as a service, or RaaS.
  • “Drones, healthcare, and agriculture are most popular to investors. It’s not just automotive … everyone is buying into industrial automation,” said Richard Lightbound, partner and CEO of Robo-Stox Partners Ltd. He later added that many investors have questions about valuation. This varies by vertical industry, so there isn’t a simple answer for all robotics across all regions.
  • “Too many robotics companies don’t ask industry clients questions about what they need. They need to do more,” acknowledged Tomas Solupajev Ronlev, project and sales manager at Blue Ocean Robotics, which has offices in Denmark and Lithuania, among other countries. He said that one reason he was attending RoboBusiness was to “watch what others are doing.”

Wish list for future European robots

  • “Flexible manufacturing requires better perception, machine intelligence,” said Jon Agirre Ibarbia, head of strategic research programs for manufacturing and robotics at Tecnalia, which is the largest private research, development, and innovation group in Spain. “We need to design more integrated systems.”
  • “Tomorrow, we’ll need hybrid ROVs/AUVs,” predicted Laura Gallimberti, senior R&D engineer at ENI Norge’s Development and Technology Department. She described ENI Norge’s work on a remotely operated vehicles and autonomous undersea vehicles. As oil processing moves from offshore platforms to being almost completely undersea, Gallimberti said, safe AUVs will need to operate without power tethers, reliable wireless connections, or continuous human intervention.