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The fourth industrial revolution – aka Industry 4.0 – centers around digitizing entire production processes, from engineering design and machine programming to actual production. It’s not an entirely new idea, of course. Back in the 1980s we had computer-integrated manufacturing, or CIM, and "peopleless factories" seemed to be just around the corner. But it never took off. Why? Because the industrial tasks required were too complex, and the computer and manufacturing systems available weren’t up to the job, right? Or is there some critical success factor that got overlooked?

Dr. Götz Andreas Kemmner, a partner with the management consultancy firm Abels & Kemmner GmbH, is well placed to answer this question. "In 1989, I was part of a team of researchers at the RWTH Aachen Research Institute for Rationalization and Operations Management that published a number of extensive studies on success factors for CIM strategies," he said. "What we found is that successful CIM implementation depends about one third on the human factor, one quarter on technology, one fifth on organizational factors, one sixth on corporate culture, and only one twentieth on the market. This formula presumably still holds true for Industry 4.0. So, apart from the technology, which is now mature, one of the key success factors for Industry 4.0 will be the human factor."

Critical to Industry 4.0

Humans and machines. It seems they have to work as a team if there’s to be any progress on Industry 4.0. Humans are very versatile and can accomplish a wide range of tasks in a very short space of time. Machines, on the other hand, tend to be static, but they make up for it in speed, precision and limitless capacity for work. The key to Industry 4.0 is to combine these two worlds.

"We believe the right approach this time round is to put the human factor at the center of the paradigm."

One impressive example of this human-centric approach is the ExoHand developed by the German automation technology specialist Festo. As its name suggests, it is an exoskeleton that is worn like a glove. It uses pneumatic actuators to amplify the force applied by the wearer’s fingers and can also track the wearer’s hand movements and transmit them in realtime to robotic hands. Potential applications include remote manipulation in hazardous environments. The wearer receives force-feedback from the robotic hand, so he or she can feel and move objects without directly touching them .

Collaborative robots: a new era of automation?

Collaborative robots take this human-centric focus a step further. Unlike conventional industrial robots, they can work right alongside their human counterparts on the same task – in precision small-parts assembly, for example. They can do this because they have sensors that enable them feel and see their work environment and tell them to "freeze" if anyone touches them. Collaborative robots therefore do not pose a hazard to their human workmates. The EU very recently opened up funding for research projects on these types of robots.

One such project is FourByThree , which started in December 2014 and which aims to develop a new generation of modular industrial robots. Meanwhile, other collaborative robotics projects have already starting yielding market-ready products. A good example of this is the intelligent industrial work assistant, or iiwa , developed by German robotics specialist KUKA.

A very recent innovation in collaborative robots – and one that will be officially launched at HANNOVER MESSE 2015 – is YuMi, by ABB Robotics . With its two multiple-axis arms, YuMi sometimes looks as if it’s doing a little dance . And dancing, as we all know, is one of the most complex collaborative tasks known to mankind. True robo-boogie is obviously still quite a long way off, but the first steps have evidently been made.

The Industrial Automation Forum at HANNOVER MESSE is your opportunity to discuss pioneering innovations in robotics with experts from science, industry and government.