Two weeks ago, the Czech Institute of Informatics, Robotics and Cybernetics of the Czech Technical University (CIIRC) received an award from the Academy of Engineering of the Czech Republic for the development of a protective half mask. The mask was created in a record short time in a testbed environment for Industry 4.0. In addition to its own development, it offers small and medium-sized enterprises to try out the possibilities of their own digitization and automation in laboratory conditions. “We managed to obtain significant funds from European and national sources, thanks to which Czech companies also have a wide range of opportunities in the field of research and development,” says Pavel Burget, director of the testbed.
According to what criteria do you choose who you will work with?
In addition to long-term partners with whom we work on joint research projects, often supported by the European Union, we also work with companies that are looking for solutions for themselves or their clients. It is always crucial to agree on a framework for such cooperation, and the first step to this is to precisely define the assignment. This is often preceded by a thorough discussion, where the company names what it specifically needs to address. We also clarify what prerequisites and resources we have for this, both in the area of professional, personnel and machine capacities. Thus, cooperation always depends on a comprehensive assessment and varies from case to case.
Who is your testbed especially suitable for?
It really depends on the situation. We work with large companies, such as Lego or Škoda Auto, which are also the end users of the solution. And we also work with technology developers who provide solutions to other entities. Here I can mention, for example, Siemens or T-Mobile, as well as smaller companies without a multinational background. We even develop a number of projects with innovative and technological start-ups, such as Pocket Virtuality or Factorio Solutions.
The use of the infrastructure and research background of the testbed and, in fact, of the entire CIIRC is suitable for companies that are planning or already solving the digital transformation of the entire production or even just improving one partial process. We help companies that are just making the digital transformation to describe their processes and suggest where it pays to start innovating.
Do you feel an excess of interest from companies, or would you be able to satisfy a larger number of applicants?
We have been cooperating with a number of companies for several years and we certainly have space for new projects as well. It opens mainly because the testbed has been undergoing extensive modernization since the beginning of the year. Thanks to our involvement in the European RICAIP project, funded by European and national sources, we are acquiring the latest technologies that will expand our capabilities again. The testbed will be equipped with, for example, a fleet of autonomous mobile robots designed to transport material between production cells, a location system suitable for mapping and optimizing material flow, or a private 5G network designed for industrial applications.
How much do you involve students in this process?
There are several research teams working in the testbed, namely a team focused on flexible production and robotics, a team focused on production technologies, a 3D printing center or a smart electrical grid. There are also doctoral and postdoctoral students in all these teams. In addition, every year we list dozens of topics for individual years and we try to use the knowledge in teaching.
Do you have an overview of how the acquired know-how of the company will be handled? Do your proven practices and technologies really put them into practice?
It depends on the type of project and also on the type of intellectual property that each of us puts into the project. The difference is if the company just wants to test something to order or if we work together to develop a completely new concept or solution. Such cooperation may not have an impact on the company’s production immediately. Rather, it is the result of joint research, the implementation of which requires further steps and may take longer or require further verification. The company may also conclude that it is appropriate to try another route.
Where should a person interested in testbed services turn and what should they have ready?
I recommend devoting at least some time to finding out information, for example from websites and references to implemented projects or from published articles to get an idea of what we have implemented in the past. And clarify what the company wants to innovate and implement. The fastest way is to discuss everything in person and acquaint us with the process that the joint research project should relate to. We also specify the form of cooperation, which may take the form of joint (collaborative) research, partnership in a research project or commercial contract. Combined forms can often be used, typically in cases where part of the research can be solved in the longer term as a joint research project and part in the horizon of several months as a commercial contract. Intellectual property treatment is also an important part.
Can you name a specific example where the company has moved significantly forward thanks to the cooperation with your testbed?
I am very pleased with the result of several years of cooperation between our institute and Lego. In one of the current projects, the concept of reconfigurable packaging lines was developed with the help of automated data collection and their subsequent analysis using machine learning. It can be simply described as artificial intelligence has replaced the routine adjustment of vibrating drums used to pack Lego cubes. This saves up to 30 percent of the operator’s time, which can be more supervisory. In addition, our work will be facilitated by our applications for remote control of the correct operation of the packaging line. The Kladno factory is in charge of innovations for the entire Lego Group, so it is very likely that our solution will reach other production plants around the world.
You have received a lot of financial support from European and national sources for the development of artificial intelligence and support for Industry 4.0. How do you manage the funds? What are your plans for the future?
From this subsidy, we acquire advanced technologies and launch major research programs. However, our goal is to get involved in other projects, both national and international, and to expand international partner research networks. We want to connect research with the application sphere more and involve Czech companies in collaborative research projects. Only in this way can we help with the transformation of the Czech economy into a modern form, where methods of artificial intelligence and advanced data processing facilitate decision-making and make it possible to replace the monotonous work of unskilled workers who are in short supply on the labour market. We manage to connect different fields and thus create new opportunities for creativity and efficiency.