In July 2007, when I started the initial discussions with the European Commission about the possibility of advancing European robotics research through a unique, new approach, one which involved major interaction between academia and industry, we agreed that this goal was indeed desirable because Europe had a very strong robot industry, significant world-class research potential, as well as technological knowledge spread throughout Europe.
The problem, however, was that, in the past, finding common ground between robot manufacturers and research institutions had been difficult, especially when it came to setting future direction of robotics research. This had been one of the recurring themes in the discussion in Europe, and a new type of cooperation was desired – there was an “obvious and significant discrepancy between the state of the art in robotics research versus actual utilized technology”. And: “If we want to promote direct contact between researchers (who usually write papers) and industrial engineers (who normally do not read papers), then results have to be put into a truly industrial perspective.”
But how could this gap be bridged? Which effective and achievable activities could bring researchers and manufacturers together at the operational level?
After taking a closer look at the (few) cooperations that had taken place between privileged robot manufacturers and research institutions, we found that successful cooperations in the past became technology transfer success stories only when (i) a concrete problem was both relevant to a manufacturer and scientifically interesting to researchers (ii) the specific competences of both sides were really challenged (iii) the manufacturer provided state of the art equipment, so that the researchers’ work was carried out on the manufacturer’s equipment – and the results could be demonstrated on their robots.
We also learned from past experiences that cooperations were either geared towards the development ofenabling technologies (“How can we develop a sensor for the automatic analysis of milk for our new milking robot?”), application scenarios (“Can we use robot X in combination with component Y for our customer Z, who has a handling problem with his wafer transport chain and is now considering the use of robots ?”), and feasibility demonstrations (“Would it be possible to use proximity sensor X with robot Y in this envisioned human-robot co-worker setting – and how? And can you develop the principles of operation and build a realistic prototype in co-operation with our R&D department?”).