Robotics, energy costs rise as Europe tackles plant issues head on

The robots can juggle. They can play goalie. They can float through the air and propel themselves through water. They can perform dozens of dazzling maneuvers in a clean room after only being told once what to do.



The robots can juggle. They can play goalie. They can float through the air and propel themselves through water. They can perform dozens of dazzling maneuvers in a clean room after only being told once what to do.


I am fortunate that my wife met me before she met the robots.


The robots were one of the main attractions at the 2008 Hannover Messe in Germany in April. The annual gathering of Euro-centric manufacturing innovation brought attention to the use of robotics on the plant floor. Everyone knows they can be taught to pick and place and weld and lift. Who knew they were athletic and lithe as well?


“Don’t be jealous of the robots,” one person told me on the show floor. I’ll do my best, but it’s hard not to be a little jealous.


The robotics displayed at Hannover Fair were one solution to the growing skilled worker shortage in manufacturing, a problem as acute in Europe as it is in the U.S. The other approach was to not just encourage the attendance of young people on the show floor, but to engage and challenge them as well. Through a program called TecToYou, sponsored by the Federation of German Industries, high-school and college students were welcomed on the show floor to observe the thousands of displays and to bring them in contact with peers. A job fair was conducted at Hannover Messe and students walked away with armfuls of booth materials and experiences.


As in the U.S., German manufacturers have recognized the skilled worker shortage. As in the U.S., the barriers to solving the problem have been many. “Business was quick to recognize this problem and highlighted it repeatedly,” said Jürgen Thumann, president of the Federation of German Industries. “However, politics is a complicated business and often too slow to react to problems. What’s more, the education system in Germany is awash with red tape. Universities do not necessarily gear their range of courses to the labor market. Schools do not prepare pupils thoroughly enough for mathematics-based courses. Consequently, there is a lack of engineers while many people are unemployed because they studied the wrong subjects. Universities have to tailor their courses to demand, students and the labor market.”


The importance of the program was underscored by German chancellor Angela Merkel in her comments opening Hannover Messe. “This culture of innovation is important. We want to nurture it and take care of it,” Merkel said. “The initiative to train the younger generation, TecToYou can make a valuable contribution in this context.”


The other major issue highlighted at Hannover Messe is one where Europe is well ahead of the U.S. %%MDASSML%% energy management. The World Energy Dialogue was an effort to engage world manufacturing leaders on the issue of conserving energy and delivering sustainable manufacturing strategies to reduce carbon emissions.


“It is a joint challenge to the industrial as well as the emerging nations to accelerate our transition to low-emission energy providers,” said Dr. Antonio Pflüger of the International Energy Agency.


It was a theme at almost every booth as well. Supplier after supplier discussed how to reduce the energy needed to operate a plant effectively and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.


It was also an issue at the opening ceremonies at Hannover Messe, a gala event attended by Merkel and former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, now a special envoy. Japan was the 2008 Partner Nation at Hannover Messe. Stephan Weil, lord mayor of Hannover, noted that his city and Hiroshima, Japan are sister cities and both share in the experience of devastation and reconstruction after a war. “Industrial nations need to learn and must learn from each other,” Weil said. “We can learn from our sister city that education and research must take precedence.


“Hannover Fair stresses the need for meeting international challenges,” Weil added. “We face a major global challenge in climate change. Climate protection is a tremendous technological challenge.”


Which brings us back to the robots. At Festo’s booth, a jellyfish propelled by eight aluminum foils and powered by a pair of lithium-ion batteries is floating above the festival attendees. Named Airjelly, the contraption is designed along basic mechanical principles, but with one small catch. Since it is a helium balloon, its total weight in kilograms cannot be a number higher than its filling volume in cubic meters. Since Airjelly’s balloon can hold 1.3 cubic meters, the total weight is 1.3 kg %%MDASSML%% or just under 3 pounds.


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