Portrait of Alois Knoll

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”.[1] 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.”[2]

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?”).

The interaction between the cooperating stakeholders resulted in the recognition of new problem areas on the part of the researcher, which, in turn, encouraged creative thinking in the direction of new potential “neighbouring” applications on the part of manufacturers, etc. This ongoing, result-oriented dialogue also led to establishing trust between the researchers and manufacturers, which enabled them to open up lines of communication at more confidential levels.We concluded from these observations that such a step-by-step interaction and exchange of ideas is the most promising path to meet the ever-changing demands of industry on the one hand, and fulfill the problem-solving drive of research on the other hand.

Using this as a base, we developed the two main concepts of ECHORD – the “experiment” and the “structured dialogue”. The goal was that in order to fuel the knowledge exchange between researchers and manufacturers, the path that would reap the most benefits would be to emulate the important aspects that made the previous cooperations successful. In other words, do what they did right and even expand and improve on it.

Experiments are small-scale funded projects lasting 12 to 18 months, in which researchers and manufacturers collaborate on a specific, concrete challenge – using state-of-the-art equipment provided by the manufacturer. Experiment proposers are encouraged to follow so-called “research foci”, which are (nonbinding) recommendations for topics to be investigated in the experiment. Moreover, experiments can be of different types, following our analyses outlined above: they are geared towards joint enabling technology development (develop new robots, components, network, etc., based on bi-directional exchange of knowledge), others towards application development (use of robots and components in new areas and scenarios) and yet others towards feasibility demonstration (show that prototypes can actually be deployed in classical industrial settings). One of the most attractive factors for proposers was the low-overhead, streamlined, non-bureaucratic submission process: proposals for the experiments had to be very short – maximum 20 pages, the submission was straightforward, the evaluation was quick, and the negotiation was rapid.

The structured dialogue was designed as an iterative process of successive information gathering and consensus finding between all stakeholders. The guiding principle was “information aggregation and densification”. Based on a collection of ideas gathered in polls, web-consultations, expert-meetings and lab-tours, an initial set of ideas was profiled, re-distributed with specific questions for discussion and then summarised in a white paper of working hypotheses. We expected this instrument to not only identify (upcoming) trends, but to also lead to a ‘virtual exchange desk’ that could enable Europe to move into the role of trendsetter, and no longer trend follower. While we were very pleased to see that some of these activities were highly acclaimed in the community (e.g., the lab-tours and the resulting reports), others will certainly need some polishing to be of optimal effectiveness in the future.

Summarising, the original strategic mission of ECHORD was to (i) enable researchers to use industrial-level equipment for know-how transfer experiments, (ii) encourage researchers and manufacturers to identify and work together on emerging technology scenarios, by means of establishing a structured dialogue between all players (iii) extract, consolidate and broadcast the actual progress achieved in the experiments to the robotics community. In 2007, fostering direct cooperation between manufacturers and researchers in this way was a completely innovative and ground-breaking approach for European robotics.

Six years, three call-for-proposal rounds, a lot of process revisions and an enormous amount of learning later, we are very pleased and proud to say that ECHORD has been hugely successful! Following our instincts and stepping up to meet this challenge has really paid off. We have completed 51 experiments selected from about 250 proposals, the consortium of ECHORD now consists of about 100 participants, the total budget spent was about 25 million €. Moreover, all activities are well-documented, there are brochures describing the research groups in detail, there are the very popular lab-tour reports, there is video footage on each and every experiment, and many more useful documents.

Obviously, there have been – and will continue to be – many long-term effects and benefits to the industry as a whole (developing new technology, unifying the fragmented community, etc.), but also many unexpected successes, like the fact that the ECHORD team managed to actively motivate hardware suppliers to display their offer in the ECHORD catalogue of robotics, which now displays nearly 300 items.

The unique, never before tried structure of ECHORD can also be seen as a basis, a blueprint, if you will, for further EU projects – tapping untold potential and application possibilities. The impact that the project has already made is immense and will continue to shape the robotics community in the future. We have gathered experience, developed structures, systems and best practice standards for a novel type of project that can be utilized for a myriad of areas.

It is my hope that our experiences in this endeavor may be of use to others and that those inside and outside the traditional robotics community will find this book useful and inspiring .It is always good to think outside the box and try a new approach. To my colleagues at the European Commission, my fellow roboticists in the community and the ECHORD Team, I would like to say a sincere thank you and great job for making the ECHORD project such a success!

Alois Knoll, ECHORD coordinator

For more information about the first ECHORD project please refer to www.echord.info
[1] See the special issue of IEEE Robotics and Automation Magazine on “Manufacturing Robotics in Europe”. Vol. 12, Issue 3, Sept. 2005
[2] Quoted from the editorial “Industrial robotics applications and industry-academia cooperation in Europe” in the above mentioned magazine.