A white mobile robot with a moving arm.
NEURA Robotics
2023-01-01 publication

Robotics for all

German robotics startups are launching a small revolution. The young companies want to democratize how robots are used by simplifying the applications and enabling everyone to take advantage of them. Small and medium-sized businesses, in particular, will benefit from this.  

By Markus Strehlitz

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Editor-in-Chief VDE dialog

Robotics is booming. The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) is registering an all-time high for the industry. According to the World Robotics Report 2022, around half a million robots were installed worldwide in a single year. That corresponds to a growth rate of 31 percent year-on-year and surpasses the record number of robot installations in 2018 by 22 percent. A major reason for the trend is that the systems are constantly becoming easier to use. The obstacles involved in setting up robots for operation and training them have grown less daunting. Startups from Germany are playing a significant role in this process. 

A number of companies here in Germany are working to ensure that robots are no longer reserved for experts – and they’re following a variety of approaches. Some manufacturers are producing their own robots, such as NEURA Robotics. The startup from Metzingen is developing robots that use artificial intelligence (AI) and several built-in sensors in order to work with people without endangering them. Protective fences or cages are no longer necessary. This new development can be observed across robotics right now. 

Another advantage: the robots from NEURA no longer require extensive training. “We can put a component in front of our robot and say ‘This corner needs to be welded’,” explains CEO David Reger. “It takes a quick look and then knows what to do – for example, at what angle and at what speed it needs to weld.”  

The young robotics companies are creating products that occupy a niche often neglected by the established manufacturers, says Helmut Schmid, chairman of the German Robotics Association. Large industrial companies have their own robotics experts to implement appropriate applications. However, smaller companies often lack such specialist personnel. Simple solutions are therefore just the ticket. “We have a great startup scene in Germany that brings usability to small and medium-sized businesses with its technologies,” says Schmid. And German industry is largely composed of these SMEs. With robotics reaching the masses, Schmid and others are heralding a democratization of the technology. 

NEURA Robotics

NEURA Robotics, based in Metzingen near Stuttgart, develops cognitive robots that can see, hear and feel. It aims to expand the capabilities of collaborative robots through artificial intelligence in such a way that they can work safely with people in existing environments. Their products include the cognitive robot MaiRA and MiPA, an intelligent robot assistant designed to support people in all possible areas – from aviation to gastronomy and on to retail.  

www.neura-robotics.com

Munich-based firm Robco aims to make robotics applications simpler and more flexible with a modular system. Users can individually assemble the various modules of a robot, such as an arm, motor and control unit. This also makes the technology more economical. “If I can use standard components to assemble a robot, that makes it cheaper to use and therefore more attractive,” explains Schmid. “You don’t need six axles for every application; sometimes three or four is enough.” And the fewer axles, the higher the savings.  

Some vendors focus on the software. One of the best known is the Dresden startup, Wandelbots, which wants to free robot users from complex programming. Instead, the user takes a pen to show the robot which movement to perform. Wandelbots has also developed a universal programming language to control robots from all manufacturers. 

One code fits all: a language every robot understands 

Jens Kotlarski is pursuing a similar goal. His company, voraus robotik, has developed an operating system that can be used with various robots, regardless of the producer. “We built our system to run on different hardware architectures and enable quick installation,” Kotlarski says. “We basically plant our software in the heart of every robot.” The relevant expertise was built up over several years of development at the predecessor company, Yuanda Robotics. 

In the industrial sector alone, there is a plethora of potential applications for robots. Mechanical helpers can take over the welding of car bodies, bring materials from A to B or assist in quality assurance. This takes systems that can be adapted quickly and easily to the respective task. 

At the contract manufacturer Evocut, for example, robots from Robco supply the CNC machines with the appropriate workpieces and take care of the post-processing of the milled parts. Thanks to the modular principle, they can be adapted quickly to the various customer orders. 

3D illustration of different robotics components that can be assembled into a configurable robot.

Robco

3D illustration of different robotics components that can be assembled into a configurable robot.

Robco, from Munich, offers a system of modules that can be easily combined to assemble robots individually for the respective application. The company is reportedly building on research results from over seven years at the Chair of Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and Real-Time Systems at TU Munich. The concept is based on software that enables the modules to understand their current configuration and their intended application.  

https://www.robco.de

Car manufacturer BMW uses the Wandelbots software at its factory in Dingolfing to prepare robots for various tasks. When equipped with cameras, for example, they can check the quality of manufactured parts. Supplier ZF Friedrichshafen uses AI technology from another German robotics startup. Berlin-based Micropsi offers auxiliary components for controlling industrial robots. Here, too, the aim is to make it easier to use the machines. Micropsi helps the robot at ZF Friedrichshafen to learn to remove metal rings from a box and place them on a conveyor belt. It’s ready for work in just a few days. This bin picking may sound simple, but it represents a challenge for machines: the parts in the box can move around, so they aren’t always in the same position. On top of this, reflective surfaces or changing lighting conditions can make it difficult to detect the individual parts. 

As the examples show, these technologies not only make it easier for SMEs to get started with automation – they are also attractive for large companies. The startups could therefore also help robotics conquer many other fields of application beyond the typical industrial cases. In individual cases, robots are already proving useful in areas such as healthcare, catering or private households. But combining AI and robotics could give another huge boost to development. NEURA CEO David Reger gives an outlook on what private users can look forward to: “In two years’ time, we will be presenting a ready-to-sell household robot that uses AI to clean up spaces such as a child’s room,” he says. “It will collect the various toys, sort them and put them on the shelf where they belong.” 

Two gloved hands hold a tablet showing a robotic arm that can clearly be controlled by the tablet

Wandelbots

Two gloved hands hold a tablet showing a robotic arm that can clearly be controlled by the tablet

The Dresden based company Wandelbots strives to simplify the use of robots with a no-code approach. Users no longer need programming skills; rather, they show the robot what movements to perform using a pen. The software then generates the code in the robot’s respective programming language. Wandelbots recently expanded its software portfolio. With Wandelscript, the company offers a universal robot programming language that reportedly will be used to control all robots in the future – regardless of the manufacturer or model.  

https://www.wandelbots.com

Demand meets expertise in Germany 

Why are there so many robotics startups in Germany of all places? Perhaps because many robots are also used here – for example, in the automotive industry. According to the World Robotics Report 2022, Germany is actually the European leader in applied robotics. “Just over one third of Europe’s industrial robots (36 percent) are deployed between Flensburg and Munich,” the report says. 

The mechanical engineering association VDMA also sees strong application expertise in many robotics domains in Germany. In addition, the competence of Germany’s image processing industry is another factor. Since cameras often serve as the eyes of robots, this technology plays a crucial role in robotics. 

The success of startups also makes them attractive to investors. For example, Agile Robots is considered Germany’s first robotic unicorn – a startup valued at over one billion euros. The company completed another round of financing in September 2021, with total investments reaching $220 million. Agile Robots has its headquarters in Munich and a second location in Beijing. Zhaopeng Chen, a Chinese engineer, came to Germany to complete his doctorate at the German Aerospace Center (DLR). He founded Agile Robots together with Peter Meusel in 2018. 

A moving robot shaped like a large arm with a lens.

Agile Robots

A moving robot shaped like a large arm with a lens.

Agile Robots is a spin-off of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) with headquarters in both Munich and Beijing. The company develops various software and hardware products, including collaborative robots (cobots) and a robot operating system. The goal is to combine modern force-torque sensor technology with image processing technology. Agile Robots aims to offer user-friendly and cost-effective robot solutions that enable intelligent precision assembly. The company is the first German unicorn in the field of robotics – a startup with a market valuation of over $1 billion.  

www.agile-robots.com

From boom to sustainable business 

Compared to other countries, however, Chen also sees problems for the robotics startups in Germany. He says the capital market in Germany is not as active as in the US or Asia. As a result, Agile Robots initially concentrated on the Chinese market. The company has since set up its own production site in Kaufbeuren for the European market. Wandelbots CEO Christian Piechnick also cautions against euphoria, warning that the US has just caught up a great deal of ground in robotics with a startup scene funded by venture capital. “We still have the advantage that we have a lot of know-how in Germany and are building up more and more software expertise,” says Piechnick. But that alone will not be enough, he adds. “We need more solidarity as a community.” 

In this respect, he sees the US as having the edge, since there is far more willingness to work together there. Robotics companies there do not see themselves primarily as competitors, but “as actors in the same ecosystem that can benefit from each other.” 

And the US is not the only country catching up in robotics. Japan is traditionally strong in this technology sector, and companies there are making strides in service robotics right now. In addition, China is currently investing heavily in robotics and artificial intelligence. 

That should be incentive enough for German companies to work together. The country does have three hot spots emerging around Stuttgart, Munich and Dresden. Robotics expertise is concentrated in these regions thanks to corresponding companies and research institutions – many of the startups are also based there. The next step lies in linking everyone’s existing expertise more closely in order to turn the robotics boom in Germany into a long-lasting development. 

Markus Strehlitz is a freelance journalist and editor for VDE dialog.

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