Hand in hand: University and Industry

How can companies be persuaded to embrace the benefits of digitization and Industry 4.0? Is it possible to make the spirit of innovation tangible? Dresden offers some very concrete answers to these and other questions. A journey to three special places.

Friedrich-List-Platz 1

Dirk Reichelt is exuberant. The professor of information management is waiting for us right outside the ninth floor elevator in the central building of the Dresden University of Applied Sciences. A tall man in a wine-red shirt, Reichelt greets us, his eyes excited and eager; he’s proud of what he’s about to show us.

He walks a few steps down a wide corridor and opens a door to an air-conditioned room housing a small production line. This is the Lernfabrik – or “learning factory.” A press molds black plastic into the shape of a cell phone case and adds a chip. A camera photographs it to check for cracks. Then, a robot picks up the case and trundles over to a shaper, which takes its turn at processing the workpiece. And so it continues.

Working at the 'Lernfabrik': Nicole Jäpel and Robert Ringel

Making it work: Nicole Jäpel and her colleague Robert Ringel at the Lernfabrik.

This is just one example of the production processes that take place here. The charm is in the details – which is precisely what Reichelt wants to show us. He takes us over to the press and picks up one of the cases. He turns it in his hands, inspecting it closely. “The chip makes the case unique and unmistakable,” Reichelt says. “When the robot reads the chip, it immediately registers what product it’s dealing with. It communicates, so to speak, with the case.” Next, Reichelt points up in the air and explains that the camera photographing the case is sending visual information to the cloud. A program checks the image, searches for cracks, and reports back on any flaws. Reichelt leads us further along the production line to the shaper. He kneels down and points out a small digital display close to the floor. It shows how much air pressure the shaper needs to do its job and how much energy it’s using.

The Internet of Things at the University of Applied Sciences Dresden

Churning development: At the University of Applied Sciences Dresden visitors can experience the Internet of Things.

Production processes like these are part of the Internet of Things: Workpieces inform robots of their identity, programs in the cloud check live images for flaws, and sensors record how much energy is being used. Thanks to all this knowledge, Reichelt says, companies can make their production processes more efficient, with far fewer faults. With his contagious enthusiasm, the professor talks us through the remaining modules. In Germany, there are very few places where businesses can learn, in such a comprehensible way, what Industry 4.0 is all about and what its benefits are.

At 'Lernfabrik' robots assists humans in terms of production processes.

Nicole Jäpel and Robert Ringel controlling two robots that work as production assistants at ‘Lernfabrik’

“We aim to calm people’s fears and counter their reservations,” says Reichelt. “We’re showing the basic technology behind the Internet of Things, and can give anyone who’s interested insight into how it works.” At the very least, production managers can gather ideas for their own work, and ideally, they leave with inspiration for a brand-new product. Anyone interested can book a tour of the Lernfabrik and embark on a veritable voyage of discovery. When the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy named the twelve hubs in its Digital Hub Initiative this spring, Dresden and Leipzig were among them (see p. 4). There are so many institutions in Dresden active within the Internet of Things that the city was named the “Smart Systems Hub.” The people behind the initiative immediately got to work developing trails visitors can follow to explore all the digital knowledge amassed in Dresden. One of the places involved is, of course, Dirk Reichelt’s pride and joy here on the ninth floor – a place where visitors learn how the Internet of Things can improve their own production processes. Another is the office of Uwe Aßmann, Chair of Software Technology at TU Dresden’s Faculty of Computer Science: the next stop on our tour.

Nöthnitzer Str. 46

Just a twenty-minute walk from Prof. Reichelt’s Lernfabrik is a bright and beautifully-designed new building. It has floor-length windows complete with green blinds that bear a pattern reminiscent of an old punch card. This building houses TU Dresden’s Faculty of Computer Science. On the second floor, with its grass-green walls, doctoral students Christian Piechnick
and Georg Püschel are setting up their sensational new invention. They wheel a mighty robotic arm as tall as a man down the corridor to their office.

The Faculty of Computer Science at TU Dresden. Hand in hand: University and Industry

Welcome to the future Georg Püschel (left) and Christian Piechnick in the foyer of the Faculty of Computer Science in Dresden’s Nöthnitzer Strasse.

Piechnick pulls on a sweatsuit jacket with circuit boards sewn into it and a pair of gloves equipped with wires and chips. Then he moves his right arm – and the robotic arm imitates him with precision. “The software traces the exact movements my arm makes and passes them on to the robot,” Piechnick says. This might just look like good fun, but it’s actually at the heart of a small revolution called “demonstration-based teaching.” When the two young computer scientists and their team presented WEIR (Wearables for Interacting with Robotic Co-Workers) at the HANNOVER MESSE trade fair, visitors were amazed. “Usually, programming an industrial robot takes many weeks and costs tens of thousands of euros,” says Piechnick.

These gloves teach robots the right hand movements. Making them fit for Industry 4.0.

A close-up of the magical gloves at the Faculty of Computer Science

The jacket and gloves with integrated sensors significantly shorten this process to just a few minutes: All you have to do is put on the clothing, move your body, and send data to the robot. In this way, people will soon be able to slip into “robot gear” and show the machines how to do their work. They can be used, for instance, in a cleanroom at Infineon’s chip-making center in Saxony or at a Bosch factory.

How to teach a robot so it's fit for modern industry.

The human demonstrates, the robot imitates. Christian Piechnick and Georg Püschel with their spectacular invention.

But like the Lernfabrik, what makes this invention such a sensation is that WEIR is not the isolated brainchild of a single genius – it’s a collaborative project with practical applications. Dirk Reichelt, for example, works closely with a Fraunhofer Institute. At his Lernfabrik, big local firms like Infineon and VW are working on concrete cases, while Dresden-based company ZIGPOS delivers sensor networks and positioning systems, Leipzig firm ccc software installs the industrial software for measuring energy use, and database specialists from Robotron in Dresden take care of the cloud solutions.

What an invention for Industry 4.0

The human demonstrates, the robot imitates. Christian Piechnick and Georg Püschel with their spectacular invention.

And that’s just the beginning of a long list of collaborative efforts. The Smart Systems Hub in Dresden provides the setting for a new kind of “maker” center within which developers can turn the region’s vast store of knowledge into innovations. Christian Piechnick at TU Dresden has experienced the effects the hub can have first hand. The meetings that took place as part of the initiative really helped him get the idea of demonstration-based teaching off the ground. Even Deutsche Telekom CEO Tim Höttges used a 5G project initiated by Prof. Frank Fitzek (see p. 11) to make a presentation. There’s an online video of Höttges moving a robot in the same way Piechnick had just demonstrated to us. For Piechnick, it was a eureka moment: “You always need a place and a setting in which you can get into conversation with other people. Otherwise you’ll never make any progress.”

For more information on the Smart Systems Hub in Dresden and the visitor “trails,” check  out www.smart-systems-hub.de

Text: Peter Wagner
Photos: Lệmrich