Manufacturing is the backbone of Europe’s economy, and will continue to be a significant driver of the region’s future prosperity. In 2025 Europe’s share in global manufacturing production and trade will be about 20%.  Yet the European manufacturing sector is being confronted with several pressing challenges. The BRIC countries can use their low cost advantage to access markets unprofitable to western countries. The ageing EU society means the sector struggles to find skilled personnel. Manufacturing has a significant environmental impact, generating one third of all industrial waste. There is a need to increase supply chain efficiency, minimize the environmental burden and to better integrate workers with technology. This requires engineers with the right mix of knowledge, capability and experience to lead the major companies of tomorrow & sustain the EU’s ability to compete globally.      

Advanced Robotics and intelligent automation has great potential to address the above challenges. Up to 1 million new jobs are expected to be created by robots in the next five years. The SMART-E network concentrates on two seemingly quite different areas: Food and Aerospace. These sectors face similar challenges such as handling flexible materials, human machine interaction and cooperation, and task variability and flexibility. Food and drink manufacturing is the largest economic sector in the EU, accounting for 16% of manufacturing. The food industry is highly labour intensive throughout the supply chain. The Aerospace sector is a major industry in Europe worth €68.41bn in 2010. As with the food industry, to remain competitive aerospace needs to develop innovative technological solutions to meet challenges such as flexibility, traceability, high process capability and productivity. In contrast to the food sector the aerospace industry benefits from relatively high levels of technology investment and some of the technologies developed in aerospace commonly used within aerospace such as automation, vision systems, sensor networks, handling and process control can be transferred to the food sector. 

Today’s industrial robots are essentially the tools of long repetitive production runs, for small lot sizes human workers are still the norm. Significant benefits could be created if these activities were automated. Additionally robot/workers must be able to switch quickly from one task to another and in spite of advances in robotics the adaptability of humans to new tasks remains unparalleled. This is where the soft (cognitive and physical) approach to robotics can come into play creating robots with complex skill sets capable of dexterous manipulation while allowing safe interaction and cooperation. The goal is to develop advanced robots with cognitive abilities that can perform complex tasks safely & efficiently without the need to be fully pre-programmed.

SMART-E will address the skills & capacity shortage with the generation of scientific state of the art knowledge. Furthermore, the network will also develop skills and technologies that may be suited to other areas of robotics.

Our researchers are working in three main areas:

Dexterous, soft and compliant robotics in manufacturing (WP1)

Reconfigurable and logistics robotics (WP2) 

Safety and human - robot interaction (WP3)