Covid-19 has hit the world by its Achilles heel. The virus not only exposes human mortality; it shows the vulnerability of the economy, which is dependent on international supply chains. For example, production stops in China brought production in the domestic automotive industry to a standstill. In order to become resilient after the pandemic, companies must increasingly rely on local production, it is said. But how can a high-wage country like Germany keep up with the cheaper competition from Asia? And how can mass production take place when, due to distance regulations, not so many workers can be employed in factories as before? ”Now the hour of the robots has come“: with this headline "Der Tagesspiegel" recently provided an answer to these questions.
From emotion to added value
"Yes, many people are now saying this", says Ronnie Vuine, co-founder and CEO of the Berlin start-up ”Micropsi Industries“ (pronounced: Meikropsi). "We've been saying this for a while now." Ever since his student days at Humboldt University Berlin in the early 2000s, a group around Vuine has been working on the topic of artificial intelligence, more precisely on the "PSI" model of the German psychologist Dietrich Dörner. This involved the programming of emotional robot personalities.
When the introduction of deep learning expanded the technological possibilities, the time had come for the former student experiment to grow up: in 2014 Vuine founded the start-up in Berlin-Neukölln with Dominik Welland, Joscha Bach, Priska Herger and Ulrik Deichsel. The name of the student working group - Micropsi (Micro-Psi) - has remained the same over the years. However, the team has now moved away from the idea of emotional robots. Rather, it has concentrated on where the technology could be used to create value. An investor put them on the right track: robotics in automation. "We Germans know how to produce and automate things," says Vuine, describing a principle of success of the domestic economy, "we have accumulated an enormous amount of know-how in this field over the last 30 years.”
CEO Ronnie Vuine © micropsi Industries GmbH
Germany: country with the highest robot density
In fact, Germany is one of the countries that have automated their production most. It is surpassed only by Singapore and South Korea. According to figures from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), there are 338 industrial robots for every 10,000 workers in Germany. The global average is 99. "Automation in Germany, however, is only really high in the automotive industry," says Ronnie Vuine. In fact, 59 per cent of all robots installed in Germany are used in this industry. This is followed by the metalworking industry with 14 per cent and the plastics and chemical industry with eight per cent. Since the emergence of the trend towards robotics in the 1980s, industrial robots have traditionally been used for tasks that required a particularly high degree of power or precision. These include building car bodies, painting or welding vehicles. "The robots are programmed and are given commands for a single movement that is always the same," Vuine explains the principle. But this only works in those rare cases where the workpiece to be processed is always in exactly the same place. If the environment changes by just one millimetre, the machine quickly reaches for nothing. "This is all the more true when a workpiece has to be moved from A to B, but A or B is not known," says the managing director, quoting the example of a Berlin company which produces plastic housings for small computers. When they fall from an injection moulding machine onto the assembly line, they do not always end up in the same place. Until now, it was the job of a worker to take the housing off the assembly line, lay it in a nest and place the manufacturer's logo. Such activities are not uncommon: "In an astonishing number of production processes, people carry out very repetitive tasks which require tact and hand-eye coordination," Vuine explains. Here, he says, the use of human labour is more economical than having complex sensor evaluation software developed for an often highly specific process step. "It is often overlooked that not always technological feasibility was an obstacle to automation, but also the costs or the skills of those who have to set up the robots," the computer scientist adds. "Medium-sized companies in particular often cannot do this and would have to obtain very expensive help.”
Micropsi Industries recognized this niche as early as 2014, and developed a solution to meet these multiple challenges with one stroke: the team in Berlin-Neukölln, which has now grown to 28 experts, developed a system that enables robots to learn movements which are not the same with every repetition. So-called "hand-eye coordination" helps machines from ABB or Universal Robots to perform their tasks even in dynamic environments. This is achieved with the help of computer vision and artificial intelligence. Instead of each individual step having to be programmed in a complex and expensive way, the robot is simply taken by the hand. This is meant quite literally: the "MIRAI" software (Japanese word for "the future") learns by the robot arm being guided through the task by a human. A camera and sensors on the arm record the movement performed. In just a few hours, Micropsi Industries' artificial intelligence learns to understand the data thus obtained. "It understands how the workpiece and the movement relate to each other, and understands the principle of the movement itself," Vuine explains. In this way, the robot learns to perform the task in real time and can also be flexibly trained at any time to perform new movement steps.
© micropsi industries GmbH
Medium-sized companies - favourite customers
Micropsi Industries invested over four years in the development of MIRAI. What was tested in two companies in Southern Germany and Eastern Europe is now - one year after the market launch in 2019 - supporting robots in ten manufacturing tasks, mainly in metal and plastics processing. "We like customers who are not quite so big," says Ronnie Vuine in the Alles Neu podcast, describing his "favourite clientele" from the innovative SME sector. In this segment MIRAI scores above all with the fact that "there is no need for a huge project to be set up with a university or research institute", the CEO knows. "A customer buys the product, trains a ready-made AI himself and that's it." Depending on the complexity of the movement to be performed and the extent of the variance to be handled, MIRAI needs between 200 and 800 demonstrations, which can be performed in a few hours. After initial scepticism on the part of the production managers, experience has shown that about 30 per cent of all tasks in production can be automated. "In another 30 per cent, features from our side are missing, which we add later," says Vuine, "only 30 per cent of the tasks must continue to be performed by humans.”
Venture capital for specialisation in new industries
Micropsi Industries, which in addition to its Berlin headquarters has been represented on the American market since 2018 with a sales office in New York, has also convinced investors. Five VC companies – including Project A, Coparion and Vito Ventures from Munich and Berlin - have invested in the start-up so far. On June 18, Vuine and his team presented two new investors on Medium: the investments of M Ventures and Amplifier increased the total capital that the Berliners have been able to attract since 2014 to 13 million euro. Funds which are to be invested primarily in new fields of application. "There should be a lot of potential for robotics in laboratory automation," says Ronnie Vuine, explaining the strategic decision, "in the medium term, our systems could also be used in the development of vaccines.” The Berlin-based innovators have been investigating the possibilities for Micropsi Industries technology in this sector not only since the whole world has been waiting for a cure for Covid-19.
They are also working on broadening the development itself: "There are always reasons not to use the technology for certain applications", says Vuine, "it is too slow, the effort is too high or the industry does not want to deal with technical problems." For Micropsi Industries, all of this is an even greater incentive to work on further improvements. For example, in the "Rob-aKademI" research project, a way is to be found to make robot programming for assembly tasks less complex. To this end, the production environment will be digitally "cloned" and - together with a special programming framework - used to teach the robot flexible assembly skills in a simulation environment. The project, which involves the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation (IPA) and the University of Stuttgart, Institute of Industrial Manufacturing and Management (IFF), is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).
"Looking ahead, robots will soon also be used in the dynamic world outside of factories," Ronnie Vuine is convinced. In his view, service robotics in particular will be an exciting topic in the long term, which he believes could before long become reality in old people's homes or hospitals. "The machines will not be caring for the old or sick, but rather collecting dishes," emphasizes the founder. "It never stands in the same place and always looks different, but the processes are predictable. We don't work on the product, but if a company launches such a system, our hand-eye technology can be bought as a component. We are ready!"