Before the INNOVEIT Summit in Brussels, the final stop on our pan-European event series is going to be INNOVEIT Athens on 6 October. The main topic of the event is “Digital production and artificial intelligence for sustainability”, two of the most relevant themes in the manufacturing industry today.
It should come as no surprise that the event is organised by EIT Manufacturing, whose ultimate mission is to accelerate faster innovation through Europe’s largest innovation ecosystem, meet the continent’s ambitious climate goals, and ensure that the European workforce is ready for the challenges of tomorrow.
The keynote speaker at INNOVEIT Athens will be Dr Sotiris Makris, senior project manager at the Laboratory for Manufacturing Systems and Automation (LMS) of the University of Patras. Sotiris is a leading expert in the field of robotics, manufacturing, and AI. Like a true professor, he gave us some valuable insight about the future of human-robot relationships, a brief history of the manufacturing industry and how AI will contribute to social and environmental sustainability.
EIT: You are Head of Robotics, Automation, and Virtual Reality at the University of Patras. How would you explain what you do to an industry outsider?
Sotiris Makris: I’m coordinating a group of highly skilled people on developing advanced solutions towards AI application in industry with a special focus on human-robot cooperation. Our team is looking into how production processes in the factory of today can be transformed by employing robotics, virtual and augmented reality technology. We’re doing this working closely with industry people to identify and prioritise challenges that would advance industry competitiveness in terms of efficiency, environmental and social sustainability.
EIT: In what areas will robots help humans in the future?
Sotiris Makris: That’s a key question. Robots can have a very important role in supporting humans in the factories of the future. Our research aims to transform the factory floor by introducing efficient collaborative workplaces oriented towards the acceptance and well-being of workers.
"Combining AI and robotics allows to promote gender equality in manufacturing and to enable the employment of operators with special restrictions."
We are working towards introducing advanced, safe, and collaborative robots which are enhanced with smart wearables and with artificial intelligence so that to augment human capabilities in the factory. According to this paradigm, the human drives the production process augmented by robotic technology. This helps improve working conditions and leads to a reduction of the physical and cognitive load for workers and people in the factor.
In term, this improves ergonomics, enhances user experience, increases comfort, trust, and feeling of safety. This technology can help to develop attractive industrial environments for young and aged personnel. Furthermore, combining AI and robotics allows to promote gender equality in manufacturing and to enable the employment of operators with special restrictions and this is because robots are used for lifting heavier parts while people are performing tasks requiring skills and dexterity.
EIT: They say that we’re in the midst of the 4th industrial revolution. What is industry 4.0?
Sotiris Makris: The key point is that our times are characterised by the connectivity of everyone and everything. The Internet and the services delivered over it are now part of our daily life. So, this is the basis of the 4th industrial revolution which follows the previous three.
"Industry four concepts have been around for more than ten years now, and this has been one of the drivers for the adoption of artificial intelligence in industry."
The 1st industrial revolution involved the mechanisation of industrial processes, and it was enabled by the adoption of the steam engine in production. The 2nd revolution was enabled by the adoption of the production line concept which in turn helped to reduce dramatically the costs of production and thus deliver products at a reasonable price. The 3rd industrial revolution had to do with the introduction of computers in production which allowed for computers to control machines, and this resulted in the development of robots and other programmable machines.
Finally, in our times, we are living in the 4th industrial revolution, and this is enabled by the interconnection of machines, people, and many other computerised systems. This allows for more efficient use of information available on the factory floor. Industry four concepts have been around for more than ten years now, and a lot of progress has been made already and this has been one of the drivers for the adoption of artificial intelligence in industry.
EIT: AI is becoming increasingly important in the manufacturing sector. However, there is still a veil of mystery around it in the industry. How can AI help create an environmentally and socially sustainable manufacturing industry?
Sotiris Makris: That’s quite interesting, how to make AI understandable and how we can see the benefits of AI. I think very simply speaking, AI is the tool to help control complexity. AI has been evolving over the years with the main aim to automate processes that require a lot of data processing. Such processes are hard and sometimes impossible for people to perform.
Examples where AI has shown its applicability so far are for example scheduling of production where lots of data have to be processed to achieve a balanced production schedule. Or for example enabling robots to perform autonomously in cooperation with the people in the factory. Now having this as the basis, AI has the means to achieve efficiently both social and environmental sustainability.
"AI and cognitive automation can help to reduce production and product waste and altogether that would help to reduce the use of natural resources."
Talking about social sustainability, AI and digital technology can help to achieve a reduction of physical and cognitive nodes by using collaborative robotics autonomously in cooperation with people. AI can also help deliver personalised cognitive automation systems to support human operators and altogether, AI would allow to improve personnel job quality. AI would offer an attractive and safe industrial workplace to young and aged personnel combined with robotics and smart automation. Then this would allow to employ people with special restrictions in factories and then would also promote gender equality.
Regarding environmental sustainability, AI and cognitive automation can help to reduce production and product waste and altogether that would help to reduce the use of natural resources. In addition, AI can be used to help improve energy efficiency that would lower the environmental footprint in the factory. And finally, AI and digital automation would help to perform digital validation and optimization of production operations before the physical installation of the factory that would help to lower costs and to have less use of resources.
So, both social and environmental aspects of sustainability are enabled using artificial intelligence and cognitive automation and that is done in an economic way since economic sustainability can be achieved by the reduction of physical changes and the relevant costs. Also, robotic operation and programming can be further reduced since non-experts can at any time reprogram such machines. And then, smart planning and AI-enabled planning can help to reduce down-time and to have a balanced workload at the factory.
Altogether, this framework can help to have a sustainable use of AI in the factories of the future.
EIT: You have worked together with EIT Manufacturing before. How do you see the role of EIT Manufacturing in supporting SMEs?
Sotiris Makris: EIT Manufacturing has always at its core the support towards industry and has paid special attention to SMEs. The key ingredient of EIT Manufacturing towards supporting SMEs is the knowledge triangle integration approach. According to this approach, EIT Manufacturing provides access to innovations with SMEs having access to new manufacturing technologies. This aims to waive the lack-of-knowledge barrier of SMEs.
"EIT Manufacturing provides access to a pan-European manufacturing community that engages key stakeholders for the innovation and industrial ecosystem."
Second, EIT Manufacturing provides access to funding for proof of concept and to validate innovation. And that would help with waiving the reluctant-to-invest barrier of SMEs.
A third dimension of EIT Manufacturing is that it provides access to innovation, and it helps to address the issue of lack of skilled personnel of SMEs. EIT Manufacturing here provides a set of services and facilities called teaching and learning factories which facilitate the aspects of education and training for SMEs.
Finally, EIT Manufacturing provides access to a pan-European manufacturing community that engages key stakeholders for the innovation and industrial ecosystem.
EIT: What are you looking forward to during the INNOVEIT Athens event?
Sotiris Makris: INNOVEIT Athens is going to be a very interesting and rather unique event. INNOVEIT Athens will be followed by the inauguration event of the new EIT Manufacturing Co-location Centre Southeast which is established in Greece. Another point is that high level stakeholders and experts will be discussing on how digital production and modern AI solutions can help European industry become more efficient in its competitiveness and at the same time contribute to environmental and social sustainability.
The event will offer insights from key stakeholders coming from the European Commission, and national authorities, as well as innovative corporates, innovators, and start-ups. Altogether this will contribute to Europe stepping ahead on the global scene. I really look forward to it and looking forward to the interactions with the participants.
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