On a midweek, mid-March afternoon Dr. Michael Suppa welcomed workshop presenters and delegates to what everyone expected would be a lively, insightful session at ERF in Rimini. They were not disappointed. For Michael it wasn’t the first time he had been on his feet at ERF or indeed at an event delivered under the euRobotics brand. Far from it. Michael’s connection with euRobotics goes back to its foundation and even earlier, to the European robotics research network (EURON) in the 2000s. He was at what European robotics history now records as the very first ERF in San Sebastian in 2010, although it was named differently at the time. That groundbreaking event for Europe’s robotics community led to the creation of the present day euRobotics in 2012, with Michael among the founders. In his ‘day job’ at the time, Michael headed the Perception and Cognition department of the Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics at DLR, the German Aerospace Centre, which became the second-ever member of euRobotics. In 2013, Michael took responsibility for the newly-formed euRobotics topic group TG Perception, a coordinating role he continues to play to this day. Two years later he took the now well-trodden path of the academic turned entrepreneur with the creation of Roboception, a spin-off from DLR. Of course, there are no guarantees with start-ups or spins-offs but ‘so far, so good’ would be an accurate comment on Roboception’s growth since then and perhaps even an understatement.  

For Michael, the current challenge for European industry and wider society is one of perception – on one hand the recognition that Europe’s productivity is directly affected by an ageing workforce and an imminent (if not already present) lack of resources, coupled with ever-increasing cost and complex supply chains and on the other the role that robot perception can play in bridging the gap created by this demographic time-bomb. When it comes to robot perception, Michael is well-placed to comment. His doctoral thesis explored ‘Autonomous Robot Work Cell Exploration using Multisensory Eye-in-Hand Systems’. At DLR he led a several-dozen-strong team that focused on tactile and visual robotic perception in complex settings. And his Munich-headquartered company Roboception now provides advanced robot vision platforms and systems to a diverse and growing customer base of both integrators and end users, from industrial automation to logistics, from healthcare to agriculture.  

According to Michael, providing ‘Eyes and brains for your robot’, as Roboception neatly puts it, will be a game-changer for industrial production. “We have to address the growing labour gap,” says Michael, “and we can do it with sensory assistance. It isn’t just about automation but it’s about how we automate.” 

Michael cites the case of a customer in Germany interested in 3D perception: “They have not automated in the past, but they say ‘If we don’t do it now, we will not have people to work for us when existing employees retire in two years.’ They recognise that, for their business, automation is not about taking jobs but about keeping production going. The choice isn’t easy, but can be stated in stark, simple terms. No one wants to do a dull, dirty, dangerous job. They say ‘We either automate, or we move production to another country, or we close our factories.’” 

For Michael and Roboception, this represents opportunities but also challenges: “We have to equip customers with the sensors, AI and all the skills they need to make the most of automation.”  

Clearly a substantial customer education exercise is involved, too: “It also means that integrators have to change their way of working, and we have to explain to customers how additional processes can be automated or efficiency can be increased thanks to a perception component.” 

Meanwhile, as we spoke, ERF was looming (although in reality ERF never seems far away), and Michael was certainly looking forward to it. As well as coordinating the workshop, he was keeping a keen eye on the euRobotics Awards, after winning the Technology Transfer Award in 2018. Most of all, Michael was out and about talking to friends and associates and making new connections, something ERF is justly famous for, and Michael underlines the benefit: “Meet and greet at ERF is a key asset for me. It’s so valuable to be able to see both scientific and industry contacts at the same event.”  

Follow the link for more about Michael’s workshop at ERF 2024