Gian Luca Branca, CEO of KUKA Roboter Italia, was guest of the final appointment with the Spring Edition of the Innovation Talks 2019. On the occasion of his speech Orange Intelligenz: the vision of KUKA for the future of automation, dedicated to the future of Industry 4.0, Gian Luca Branca shared his vision of IoT and collaborative robotics in this interview with BBS.
KUKA has always been an avant-garde company. It was founded in 1898 as a company producing gas for city lighting, then introduced autogenous welding. In the process of growth it came to designing and producing a garbage collection vehicle and the portable typewriter. It then developed FAMULUS: the world’s first industrial robot with six electromechanical drive axes and recently introduced a new generation of robots: with the LBR iiwa, in fact, KUKA presented the first collaborative industrial robot. With such a rich history of innovations, what was the most significant innovation for the company that led KUKA to decide to deal exclusively with robotics?
KUKA’s path, developed over the last 120 years, is an example of the evolution of a group of people who work together and adapt to the surrounding environment. It is an example of an organization that takes an evolutionary direction based on the stresses coming from the market and from society. KUKA was founded by two partners, Keller and Knappich, and was born as a company producing gas and then it has moved on to welding. In the meantime, the automobile industry was born and from then on the problem was posed of creating large quantities of high quality products, and therefore, the need to create processes and equipment that would help mass production.
The car represented a paradigm shift in all human mobility. From there a few years later, when more and more technologies became available and science became applied science, the first machines that resembled robots appeared: machines that carried out self-directed production cycles and that helped mankind to perform complex and dangerous tasks. Thus, we can say that robotics was born as a necessary aid to production.
In the 60s and 70s all these technologies contributed to creating in KUKA the first “FAMULUS” robot, which is still exhibited today at the Augsburg site, and today seems to be a very old-fashioned machine comparing it with modern products. This was the time when the company decided not to deal with the old productions anymore and to concentrate on the “new” technologies. So we have become a leader in automation and robotics and all the technologies and processes that today find their place under the name of Industry 4.0.
Nowadays, every company tends to adopt advanced technologies that respond promptly to the needs of the market, and we hear more and more often about robots, Smart Factories and Industry 4.0 as a sine qua non for modern production systems. If we assume a future where robotic technology will be accessible to all, as has happened in a certain sense with computers, on what plan will the competitive advantage of tomorrow’s companies be played according to you? What would determine the difference between companies at that point?
The difference is always made by man. The only thing that cannot be copied is the ability of man to work together according to a guideline of evolution that allows us to remain on the market and deliver value to our customers. Therefore, it is vital to have a collective intelligence to understand the needs of the market, detect them, monitor them and transfer them to the customer as an added value.
In our field we talk about Industry 4.0, a very advanced connection of everything that is in the factory and that allows us, among other things, to use Artificial Intelligence algorithms to improve processes and anticipate problems. The Artificial Intelligence also allows us to create virtualized models of the factory, which, by collecting data from the field, gives us the opportunity to anticipate the information to the people who will have to manage it, thus enabling them to optimize the processes and make the goods available on the market with lower costs and a higher quality. All this is now called Industry 4.0, but in reality it is a jumble of means and technologies that is difficult to summarize with a single word.
According to KUKA the focal point of the factory of the future is man, with the robot as its decisive component. However, there is a fear that innovation, aided by Artificial Intelligence, can move towards a direction in which robots will be increasingly autonomous. There is also the fear of a reversal, as we are moving more and more towards a collaborative robotics and we fear to get to the point where man will actually disappear. What do you think about it?
If this catastrophic scenario were to come true, in which robots will do everything in our place, there would be a major underlying problem, because basically we would have no one for whom to produce. If we were to take this path, I am sure that a mechanism of economic and social correction would still be in place.
In reality, things are not really moving in this direction. We must remember when Excel came out in the 90s, nobody was afraid that the job of the secretary could become useless. Instead, if we go to see, we note that the secretary has become an assistant, who today also uses new work tools, as can be precisely that of Excel, but has raised the level of his professionalism. Gradually, people adapt to new processes and vice versa.
Today a robot does activities that are impossible or dangerous for man, just think of the activities of a foundry. Therefore, robots do not take away jobs, they rather protect and save lives, representing an improvement in working conditions. It is clear, however, that in order for man to coexist well with the machines, it will take a growing and constant training of people so that they can perform different and more complex tasks than today. Contrary to popular belief, the rise in automation reduces the unemployment rate, because counterintuitive events occur such as, for example, those of bringing back to the country productions that were exported for reasons of cost.
One thing, however, is robotics and another is Artificial Intelligence, two concepts that are often confused and mistakenly linked. In robotics, for example, Artificial Intelligence is used to facilitate the guidance of robots with mechanisms that facilitate the understanding of the image that the robot has in front, thus making it possible for more autonomous manipulation and movement. However, we must be balanced in the development of AI applications. Like all high-potential innovations, artificial intelligence can be used for better or worse, but this will always depend on man.
Italy is often considered at the bottom of the list in the implementation of new technologies, although it is home to many leading international companies in the IoT, technological innovation and automotive sectors. These areas attract many students from Italy and abroad, but there still seems to be a long way to go to become a real international pole of attraction for the talents of the future. How do you see Italy now and what are the possibilities for development?
We Italians are already important in this sector, more than we are able to communicate in the media. In the field of automation we are among the 4 most important countries in the world, immediately after Germany, Korea and Japan. The industrial structure of Italy is made up of many small companies founded by inventors and innovators, who in their vertical sector have developed products of excellence, exporting almost 80% of their production.
In the automation sector, in fact, robotics has grown continuously since 2010. After the financial crisis of 2009, the sector’s growth rate has continued to grow in double digits. This is particularly true for Italy, since it represents a world’s automation distribution hub and therefore we benefit not only from internal consumption, but also from the activity of these integrators of industrial automation companies that export all over the world.
Furthermore, the Italian school is among the best in the world, but what is really still missing is the connection between University and Industry. In terms of competence, those who earn a Master’s Degree in Italy are worth much competent than those graduating in other Anglo-Saxon countries.
We live in a society that, fortunately, is increasingly understanding the importance of sustainability. Sometimes sustainability and technology go hand in hand, other times, instead, they are antipodes, as more industrial development creates problems for the environment. Has the sustainability debate entered KUKA too? How can a robotics company contribute to protecting the planet?
For us, sustainability means designing and building more efficient machines, which allow us to consume less and less energy resources. In fact, it is possible to improve the operating strategy of the robots or of their components, in order to minimize or in any case lower the consumption of energy.
From a broader point of view the use of the robot, which replaces man in the most dangerous jobs, guarantees the continuity of operations, through a safe process for a group of working people. Sustainability also means quality. You should possibly use components that do not pollute and that can be reused: currently there is a good market for second-hand robots, therefore a recycling process has been put in place.
Here in Bologna Business School, we form managers who will be called to intercept innovation and implement it in the companies in which they will operate. Is there any advice you can give to young people entering this world, coming from different backgrounds but deciding to deal with innovation and technology?
My advice is to work hand in hand with their colleagues. It is important to specialize vertically, but when working in a company there is a need to broaden one’s own spectrum of influence: in addition to vertical competence, an understanding of all the processes in taking place in a company is also necessary. Only with collective intelligence it is possible to achieve a higher level of corporate awareness and tackle problems effectively in real time.
This is what I try to do with my colleagues too. An excellent investment of time and resources, which is giving us so much satisfaction.
– Gian Luca Branca – May 20, 2019, Villa Guastavillani, Bologna