The most influential annual meeting of the European robotics community, European robotics forum, was held in March in Ljubljana. Slovenia is relatively highly robotized with more robots per 10000 workers than Switzerland or the UK. The Alpine republic has been traditionally a bridge between the Balkans and Europe – the gap between the western and southeastern Europe in robotics was one of the key focuses of the conference.
As the next phase in the digitization of industrial production – the so called industry 4.0 - gathers force, the number of industrial robots is steadily growing. The roadmapping process for robotics in Europe was highlighted on the European Robotics Forum, the most influential meeting of the European robotics community.
This year's forum took place in Ljubljana in late March and was attended by 760 European robotics experts, most of them from Germany, Slovenia, the UK and Italy. Ljubljana was chosen as a venue of the conference because of two reasons. First, one of the key focuses of this year's forum was the robotisation of the Western Balkans. And second, Slovenia is a relatively highly robotized country with a tradition in robotics going back to the late seventies.
The forum stressed the fact that »Europe should not be divided into regions with high tech industries, high employment rates and wealth, and those with mostly manual labor, low wages, and high unemployment. « The gap in robotics between the EU and the Western Balkans should not widen.
The host country, Slovenia, represents a bridge between the Western Balkans and Europe. At the same time the young nation could be described as a success story in regard to the development of robotics. The robot density for Slovenian manufacturing is 90 robots per 10,000 persons employed – the European average is 82 industrial robots per 10,000 employees. The average global density is 66.
The most robotized sector by far is the automotive industry with 636 robots per 10,000 workers.
As the speakers at the forum pointed out, »Slovenia plays an important part in the development of European robotics with its ability to assume the leading role in setting up a network of “innovation hubs”. All the major players in robotics like Fanuc, Yaskawa, ABB or Kuka are active on the Slovenian market, despite its relatively small size.
Japanese Yaskawa, one of the leading global players in robotics, chose Slovenia as one if its major European development centers. Slovenia is also a potential location for Yaskawa's new European manufacturing line. Another Japanese robotics company called Daihen also selected Slovenia as its European production, development and commercial center. Daihen specializes in welding robots: two years ago the Japanese took over its Slovenian partner Varstroj in Lendava.
It’s not only the Japanese: the company RLS, for example, is providing custom and mass production absolute magnetic encoder sensors for robotics. KolektorOrodjarna has numerous quality control and adaptive industry vision systems.
The forum put special emphasis on so called service robotics. The manufacturing sector has been so far the most robotized sector. This may well change in the near future as robotic solutions will become more present in areas like agriculture, security, maintenance and logistics. Europe has a market share of 30 percent in industrial robotics; in service robotics it is the global leader with a share of 63 percent.
Slovenia's key institutes like Institute Jožef Stefan or the laboratories of the University of Ljubljana and University of Maribor could play an important role in these developments. One of the most promising areas, where Slovenian researchers are particularly active, is biorobotics: robots that imitate biological systems or work with humans. Laboratory of Robotics (Robolab) at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, has collaborated with the ETH University in Zurich in developing the ARMIN exoskeleton, which enables paralyzed arm training.The University Rehabilitation Institute Soča has, in collaboration with Jakob Oblak of the Rehing company, developed the sit-to-stand trainer prototype, intended for persons with motor disabilities. The robotics lab at the Institute Jožef Stefan focuses on humanoid robotics. One of the uses for the human resembling machines could be found in sports: IJS skier robot attracted lots of attention and provides an excellent solution for testing skiing equipment.