Finland, long renowned for its smartphone savvy, may seem like an unlikely candidate to become a robotics industry leader. Nevertheless, Finnish robotics is rapidly laying plans to become a major player in the regional and global robotics market.
“Robotics is on the rise, and many areas of business see it as necessary to create a national road map,” declared Ville Kyrki, an Aalto University professor of robotics and automation, to a newspaper in Finland in 2014. He added that robot enthusiasts, researchers, and businesses would need to work together to build a systematic national plan for the development of Finnish robotics.
Although Finland is still tinkering with its national robotics roadmap, there’s no denying that it is already a major robotics/automation systems customer. In 2015, the International Federation of Robotics ranked Finland ninth on its list of countries with the highest number of industrial robots per 10,000 people employed in manufacturing, just above Taiwan and slightly below Spain.
There is little doubt that Finnish businesses are aggressive adopters of robotics/automation technologies. A 200-robot contract signed by Valmet Automotive in 2012 for its factory in Uusikaupunki in Southern Finland was Finland’s largest robot order ever. However, the tech-savvy nation is also well on its way toward building its own innovative robotics research and production infrastructure.
Heavy hitters in robotics
One of the most innovative Finnish robotics players is ZenRobotics. Founded in 2007, the Helsinki-based company targets customers in the growing and environmentally important waste separation market. The company touts its ZenRobotics Recycler (ZRR) as the world’s first robotic waste sorting system.
ZRR is designed to accurately separate selected waste components from solid waste streams. Developed to increase the efficiency and lower the cost of waste separation, it represents the next generation of recycling.
Also looking to clean up in the global robotics market is Oulu-based Blastman Robotics, which offers a line of robots designed to handle various kinds of blast-cleaning operations. Blastman customers include aerospace, rail, and wind power and industrial enterprises that require clean surfaces for repainting and other exterior coating processes. Blastman claims to be the world’s leading manufacturer of abrasive blast-cleaning robots and manipulators.
OptoFidelity, headquartered in Tampere, is positioning itself to become a global leader in robotic user interface testing systems for touch devices. OptoFidelity’s technology can detect audio, visual and haptic events. It can be used to test device performance changes during various product development phases as well as to expose potentially costly faults prior to market launch. Optofidelity’s first robotics testing system was introduced internationally in 2010. The company now claims to have a robot model available for evaluating for any touch-enabled device.
Autorobot Finland is a Kuopio-based company that designs, manufactures and markets auto body collision repair equipment and measuring systems for repairing collision-damaged vehicles. The company’s Autorobot B30 collision repair system uses double-action hydraulics to straighten auto bodies with pull, push and pull/push combination forces. Vehicle fastening time is minimized via the use of hydraulically adjustable sill clamp fasteners.
The robotic system’s straightening bed adjusts lengthwise, front to back, to accommodate various vehicle lengths. Pulling towers are made out of high-grade aluminum, making it comparatively lightweight for ease of operation. Autorobot claims its products are used on six continents and in over 70 countries. Approximately 80 percent of the company’s production is exported.
Located in Oulu is Probot, a provider of custom project design and implementation for various platforms in robotics and automation. Probot represents several state-of-the-art robotic products in Scandinavia. The company’s services include software implementation, system customization and improvements to existing systems.
Finnish robotics education and research
Helping to fuel Finland’s automation growth are a pair of tech-focused universities: Aalto University, located near Helsinki in Espoo, and the Hervanta-based Tampere University of Technology.
Aalto University offers a master’s degree program in automation and electrical engineering. Central topics include the modeling, estimation, and control of dynamical systems, as well as embedded systems and software for modern automation systems. Most of the courses include theory as well as its application and practice.
Upon completing the program, students are expected to be able to understand the need for automation, to have the knowledge to design models and controllers for dynamic systems and to possess the ability to analyze the properties and dynamics of various types of robotic and automation systems. Graduates are also trained to design industrial software applications and to understand in depth one of five focus areas: robotics, smart systems, control engineering, automation software or factory automation.
Aalto also hosts an Intelligent Robotics Group that performs research in robotics, computer vision and machine learning. Formed by Prof. Kyrki in 2012, the group’s research interests include intelligent robotic systems and robotic vision, with a specific emphasis on developing methods and systems that cope with imperfect knowledge and uncertain senses. Other research areas include multi-modal estimation and control for robotics, manipulation under uncertainty and robotics learning and reasoning, with the goal of leveraging various mathematical models for improved robot decision-making.
Tampere University of Technology (TUT) offers a master’s degree program in automation engineering. According to the school, studies not only include conventional lectures, but also such practical ways of learning, as assorted laboratory assignments, hands-on exercises and the use of machines and devices in innovative learning environments.
TUT claims it is building a stronger profile in robotics research and education by placing a special focus on heavy-duty robotic machines, noting that robotics has tremendous growth potential, despite the fact that heavy-duty applications research tends to be challenging and expensive. TUT notes that it has a long history of developing factory automation and heavy machines.
“TUT ranks well above all the other universities in Finland in terms of the quality of research in heavy industrial robotics,” said Joni Kämäräinen, a professor in TUT’s signal processing department. “Only a few research centers elsewhere in Europe are carrying out research of equal caliber in this area.”
The Finnish robotics researchers recently launched a project to develop a worksite in which multiple robots and autonomous machines will operate side by side without any direct human involvement. The project’s goal is to create a multi-robot, multi-machine environment in which autonomous heavy mobile machines are capable of working in unison, self-diagnosing and resolving problems on their own with the assistance of a movable robot platform.
“We want to see what happens when we pool our expertise on factory robotics, heavy mobile machines, flying drones, computer vision and machine learning,” Kämäräinen said. “Will we be able to build an automatic robot-populated work site where robots can even repair one another?”
Finnish robotics researchers, business leaders, government officials and other interested individuals can share ideas and plans via Airo Island, an innovation hub dedicated to promoting Finnish robotics, artificial intelligence and automaton. Airo Island says it wants to see startups within its focus areas to develop, grow and flourish.
“Robotics and artificial intelligence are truly worth investing and improving right now, and we are constantly working to achieve our goals and visions,” Airo Island stated.
Airo Island organizes and hosts several different robotics-focused workshops and events. Its most recent major event was Roboticsweek in late November.
Intelligent transport testing
Finland’s businesses and government agencies are also taking advantage of the country’s frigid natural environment to offer an Arctic location — the Fell Lapland region — as a test bed for intelligent transport systems and automated driving technologies.
“There is a global need for this. At the moment, no test ecosystems exist anywhere in the world where automated driving could be tested in challenging conditions,” Reija Viinanen, managing director of Fell Lapland Business Services and the project’s coordinator, told the Finnfacts news service. “Currently, testing is mostly done in summer conditions, but to commercialize and advance these solutions automated driving has to also work in winter conditions.”
The Aurora project includes both closed and public test roads and is open for any company wishing to participate. The only requirement is contribution to the development of connected vehicles, automated route management, digital transport infrastructure, or innovative mobility services.
The first tests are scheduled to start once an appropriate stretch of public road is equipped with sensors and monitoring tools. Current Aurora participants include traffic authorities, the Finnish Meteorological Institute, the National Land Survey of Finland, mapping company Here, the Lapland Proving Ground, and traffic infrastructure condition monitoring specialist Roadscanners.
The project has also attracted international interest.
“We want to create new kinds of business opportunities both for Finnish and international companies,” Viinanen said. “The goal is to make [the Fell Lapland] the Silicon Valley of intelligent transportation–and that is entirely possible.”