On the 12th June I visited ‘Forum Manufacturing Technologies and Robotics: the Future is Now’, which was held at Imperial College in London. Many UK companies, Italian machine tool and robotics manufacturers and representatives from Italian universities took part in the event with the objective of building a network for educational, research and industrial collaboration. Having recently opened a facility in Rome with a focus on digital manufacturing and robotics, as part of the network of its laboratories, the European R&D group of Konica Minolta is interested to improve its knowledge of the landscape of companies and research organization involved in these fields.
The welcome address was given by the representatives of the Italian Trade Agency (ITA), UCIMU – SISTEMI PER PRODURRE, MTA – The Manufacturing Technologies Association, and Raffaele Trombetta, the Italian ambassador to London. Then, Keith Hodgkinson, Deputy Director Manufacturing, Defence and Marine at the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and Stefano Firpo, General Director for Industrial Policy, Competitiveness and SMEs at the Italian Ministry of Economic Development, explained the industrial strategy of the United Kingdom and Italy, respectively. From these speeches it was clear that a strong interest in developing Industry 4.0 is shared by both countries. In support of this move, last year the UK government published its Made Smarter Review, an independent report on the challenges and potential benefits of industrial digitalisation.
The Italian companies taking part in the event were specialists in several fields: from machining centres for the aerospace industry to jewellery engraving; from sheet-metal working machinery to digital manufacturing; from control systems to laser systems; and from additive manufacturing to measurement technologies.
The requirements of Industry 4.0 are typically addressed by embedding sensors in the machines to allow early fault detection and diagnosis. Moreover, of equal significance is the integration of cloud services: these allow the collection of data that enhance cognitive capabilities of robots that are increasingly aware of the context of their operation.
According to UCIMU, Italian manufacturing technologies and robotics industry exports around 60% of its products and Italy is the third highest exporter of industrial robots. The technological content, their customisation and the first-class customer service both before and after purchase are the qualities that make these products stand out from the competitors. The Italian companies were very proud to state their capability in tailoring solutions: every customer has specific needs which require flexibility, and indeed mass customisation is another key value of Industry 4.0.
At the subsequent Q&A session, the audience was mainly concerned with data ownership and protection. After experiencing scandals in data privacy worldwide, and learning that GDPR recently entered into force, everyone is aware of the value of their own data. For this reason, companies offering services for data collection have to be ready to answer questions about data encryption and the cloud databases that they employ.
In the afternoon, Italian academia research centres were presented, including the: Politecnico di Milano, Università Federico II di Napoli, Politecnico di Torino, Italian Institute of Technology and Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies of Pisa.
The moderator, Ferdinando Rodriguez Y Baena, Professor of Medical Robotics at Imperial College, guided all the participants in a final visit of Imperial College’s Engineering laboratories.
Among many others, I visited:
- the Aerial Robotics Lab, where insects and birds were studied to understand strategies adopted within nature for take-off, flying and landing. Researchers are developing algorithms to stabilize drones and hypothesize to use them as a swarm of constructors of buildings.
- the Dyson Robotics Lab where the new generation of Dyson robotic vacuum cleaner is developed that have the capability of understanding room layout by using computer vision technology. We had the chance to see some of their latest research in the field of visual manipulation: a robot grasps and lifts objects it sees for the first time, evaluating autonomously the best part of the object where it should apply its gripper.