“Will we be replaced by robots one day?” — Increasing automation in Saxony-based companies makes many people feel uneasy or sceptical. But for the most part, these fears are unfounded. Although robots are taking over more and more tasks, a host of new jobs and business ideas are being generated as a result. In Dresden, six young scientists from startup Wandelbots are developing a product that could very soon revolutionise production processes in companies well beyond Saxony.

The idea is for robots to learn specific movement sequences from real people with the aid of smart clothing and then replicate these movements so they can perform tasks on their own. If a worker lifts his or her arm and takes hold of an object, the robot is able to reproduce the movement immediately. All the corresponding data is transmitted to special software via the person’s jacket and gloves. In just a few minutes, the machine knows exactly what needs to be done and can also instantly adapt to new demands. Where specialists and programmers would previously have needed several days to program specific movements, these can now be communicated much more quickly and with very little need for expert knowledge, thanks to Wandelbots.

Wandelbots’ office in Dresden contains several robotic arms which the team use to try out new solutions.

That might sound very futuristic, but it’s not far off. Various companies from all over Germany are helping Wandelbots to bring their product to market as soon as possible. One investor, based in Berlin, is even financing the project with a six-figure sum. TU Dresden and the State of Saxony are also supporting the young startup, ensuring that companies in Saxony will soon be able to benefit from this new technology. We visited the team and asked co-founder Christian Piechnick to explain what the project involves.

Christian, your team’s startup helps companies to program robots and teach them new work processes within a very short period of time. Why is that so important for lots of firms?

Christian: Large firms in particular are noticing that an increasing number of startups are popping up which have the capability to provide tailor-made products. Collectively, these startups are taking away some of their customers. Major companies thus need to develop processes that allow their huge production facilities to work more flexibly. There are also many dangerous, unpleasant, monotonous and mundane tasks that people can’t or won’t do, like in chemical production processes, for example, where things that come into contact with chemicals need to be cleaned with acids. In this scenario, the robots we’ve programmed help by freeing workers from these jobs and boosting safety.

At what point did you realise that using smart clothing to program robots could work as a business idea?

Christian: As a group of young scientists, we presented our product at the Hanover trade fair two and a half years ago and came home with a huge stack of business cards. Everyone kept asking us when they would be able to buy it. One of the people interested was a sweet manufacturer who needed robots to sort chocolates into chocolate boxes. There was also a film crew from the US who wanted to use our jacket for chase scenes to remotely control robots fitted with cameras.

The enquiries came from an amazing variety of industries. So we said to ourselves, “OK, let’s set up a company.”

Maria Piechnick makes smart clothing from everyday jumpers, jackets and gloves. She has a doctorate in this field from TU Dresden.

How would you describe the smart clothing that people wear to teach the robots what to do?

Christian: They start out as normal items of clothing: jackets, gloves, jumpers. We then embed sensors and actuators in them. The sensors record all the data relating to body movements, and the actuators give the wearer a response, such as vibration. When you teach the robot to grip something, it’s important that the clothing, such as the gloves, lets you feel that something has been gripped.

Staff member Christoph Bierung demonstrates how a robotic arm learns certain movements with the aid of smart clothing.

The bulk of the value of our startup, around 98 per cent, is accounted for by the software we’ve developed. When a movement is being demonstrated to a robot, our software records all the data it possibly can. This data is analysed and then used to create an automation process in the form of a script. The more I teach a robot something, the bigger the data set, thus making the robot’s movements more accurate.

What makes you different from other companies offering similar products? Is there a lot of competition in your industry?

Christian: No, actually there isn’t! There are a handful of startups worldwide which are working on similar lines. We have very strong links with some of them. And in the academic world, there are groups following a similar approach. But at company level, we are – as far as I know – the only ones in the world to be pursuing this exact idea of using smart clothing to program robots.

Sensitivity is vital. Co-founder Maria Piechnick attaches sensors and actuators to smart clothing.

The topic of software for robots has been completely neglected for decades. Of course, there are thousands of companies that program robots. Their business model is to help companies automate their activities. Want to have one of your work processes automated? These providers will buy robots and build a booth around them, program everything, take care of the security technology and operate it all. If you want to change anything, it’s complicated and horrendously expensive.

You all come from TU Dresden, but it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that you would set up your company here in the city. Why did you decide to stay in Dresden?

Christian: We have an investor in Berlin who would have liked us to go to Berlin. We receive assistance from business angels in southern Germany, who would have liked us to move to Munich or Stuttgart. But the advantage of Dresden is that it has the largest cluster of microelectronics businesses in Europe. That means it’s home to many firms whose core focus is automation. Those are precisely the firms we want to work with.

At home in Dresden: the Wandelbots team comes from Saxony and intends to stay here in the future.

We also receive support through the local Business Hub, the State Chancellery and the City of Dresden. What’s more, it’s easier to gain access to people in companies here, even at senior management levels, than it is in many other cities. Not to mention that we have our roots here, as well as lots of supporters. We want to stay here and we believe there are many, many companies in Saxony that could really benefit from our solution.

Finally, a personal question: should we at “Simply Saxony.” be concerned that robots might replace us one day?

Christian: We’re a long way from robots being able to solve problems proactively and creatively. The things that make us truly human are not things that robots will be able to do in 10 or even 15 years’ time. Robots are pretty good at learning repetitive tasks that we teach them, but a human being still needs to deal with anything that deviates from the planned process or is unpredictable. Wherever robots are deployed, there are also real people needed to monitor them.

When the steam engine was invented, many people thought it would destroy mankind. But it didn’t, and neither will automation.

www.wandelbots.com