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Smart Production Lab: where robots come to life

Smart Production Lab: where robots come to life

In Wolfsburg’s Smart Production Lab, robots are programmed to work side by side with people.

At first glance the action in Hall 54 of Volkswagen’s Wolfsburg plant resembles that of many other engine assembly lines. Upon closer inspection, however, it’s apparent that, of the many specialised technicians, one is made of plastic and metal – a robot that assembles engines.

This type of production, where humans and robots work side by side without any protective barriers, is known as human-robot collaboration (HRC). HRC places high demands not only on safety. Robots that work so closely together with people also require considerable knowledge and skills. “More and more sensors are being installed in robots these days. That requires a new type of programming, and poses some challenges for us at IT”, explains Johannes Teiwes who, along with his colleagues in the Smart Production Lab at Wolfsburg, wrote the software which brings these robots to life.

The team is composed of around 40 experts – primarily computer scientists but also industrial engineers and business specialists. Their research is focused on how robots learn and how they can be integrated into production processes in intelligent ways. “Our work focuses on smart technologies used in production, always from the perspective of software development”, explains Teiwes. Some of the key topics include the Internet of Things and self-driving vehicles for intralogistics applications.

What the robots programmed by Teiwes and his colleagues are able to do is a never-ending source of fascination: they can identify the engines they are working on by themselves – TSI, TDI, GTI etc. – and perform their tasks with speed and accuracy. Even more importantly, if one of their human colleagues gets too close, they register that fact and stop moving – safety is the highest priority here. At present the robotic arm can perform the requisite movements for seven different engine variants, thanks to very sensitive sensors and sophisticated software logic: “It was important to us to use generic programming, developed in such a way that it can be used for additional applications”, Teiwes explains: this approach is both flexible and expandable.


The team at the Wolfsburg Smart Production Lab has now programmed four robots for four different production tasks at the assembly plant: all operations which are physically very demanding and that the robots can perform instead of humans. “Efficiency and ergonomics play equally important roles”, adds Teiwes. “Robots need to help people in ways that make sense. It’s not necessary to use robots everywhere”.

The team’s next robot project is known as MIRCO, which stands for Mobile Intelligent Robotic Co-Worker. It is a two-armed robot prototype which can grasp heavy components like a person, yet be just as effective at holding a single screw. “We humans are the best model for it”, says Teiwes with a smile. “But to program robots you need a good imagination and a lot of patience”. – Volkswagen AG