Watch the interview with Dr Tilman Becker, RICAIP Director, speaking about the specifics of the RICAIP project and flexible production lines – broadcasted by the Czech TV on Tuesday 4 February 2020 at 12:50 (exact footage timing at minute 16:55, only in Czech):
To develop and test the technologies of the factories of the future is the goal of the large research project RICAIP, which has been granted last year to a Czech-German consortium led by the Czech Institute of Informatics, Robotics, and Cybernetics. The European Union will invest over a billion crowns into the project. From the beginning of the year, the allocation of this funding is being managed from Prague by a new director German researcher Tilman Becker.
Martin Tyburec (MT): Give me please some specific examples of how you will spend this money.
Tilman Becker (TB): In general, this money has been given to a consortium in the Czech Republic with two partners from Germany helping to set up a big research centre here and in Brno for research in advanced industrial production, concentrating on robots, but including many other aspects. In specific, an example (you can see in the background) is a testing environment for producing different products by different robots. So, you can choose from a big variety of different product that can be produced on this one line and have individual products being produced in the same efficiency that can typically be seen in mass production when robots are doing certain things over and over again very quickly. We can here control what has been done very individually and flexibly adapt the production line of these little toys – trucks as you can see – to whatever has been demanded from the production line right up to the last minute before the production starts.
The expectation is not only to come up with use cases within this project, but also to attract new research and local companies to work with us on their specific needs and set up a new research centre that will then sustain itself after this initial period of financing from the European Union and also from the Czech government, that is co-financing this, has ended.
MT: What will this research bring me as a European citizen or tax-payer?
TB: Well, the really long-term impact is that the production can be moved from the off-shore production back to the European Union, to the Czech Republic in particular, because these new production lines will be able to flexibly produce individualized products with the same efficiency that you can currently only see in mass production.
MT: Why would companies move their factories back to Europe? Why they don’t just improve with this technology their current factories in Asia, for example?
TB: This is a new technology, so it needs expert workers that are available in Europe, but maybe not off-shore. One of the goals of course is to reduce transportation costs. If we don’t have to put everything into containers and ship them all over the world – it is clearly a big advantage. It’s creating jobs here. The companies that are located in Europe feel a certain responsibility to supply jobs in Europe, ff that’s possible. And this is exactly the way to do this.
MT: Let’s say that we have a specific product – shoes or bikes. I have a factory and I want to use the new technology. What will it bring to me as an owner of the factory?
TB: The first thing is that you can offer a better product to the market, you can provide much more variety to it. You don’t just have one type of shoes but you can invite customers to make their own selections. You can see it with cars, where you can buy one model but then you can have many choices in colour, equipment, engines, transmissions and so on. That kind of choice will become available in more and more areas, like furniture for example. You can go to a store and buy a particular type of sideboard. But wouldn’t it be just nice if you just give the specification of your room, whether it is bigger or smaller, and get the individualized furniture?
MT: That means that the industries will be so flexible that they just easily change the dimensions of their products?
TB: That is currently not possible because it can only be produced efficiently in the production line that has very fixed steps and sizes and everything. But the goal is to change exactly that. For example, using robots is the perfect means of achieving this flexibility.
MT: As you mentioned, we are in the so-called testbed. What are you testing here?
TB: Well, many things that you don’t see. But let me explain it a bit how things work together in this factory. Typically, these robots are individualized workstations, they get their start signal and they start doing what they are programmed to do and then they send a signal back. But there is no further communication. Here, we are really connecting all of these aspects – very different machines from very different manufacturers using very different communication protocols – putting everything together into one big planning system that can connect to everything and can understand all the signals that come from all the different parts.
MT: You have come to the Czech Republic to this position from Germany, from the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence DFKI, which is an important member of the RICAIP project as well. Please tell me how are you going to use your experience from Germany. I mean both in the scientific point of view and the managerial point of view.
TB: At DFKI, I have always been working in joint projects, sometimes with many different partners. So, I have almost 25 years of experience in working with large international groups. I thing that’s a very helpful experience. Science in these days is not a national endeavour anyway. It’s clearly an international collaboration. In that sense, there is not that much change as the environment I have found here so far is clearly one of those international environments.