An interview with Prof. Dr.-Ing. Klaus Schlickenrieder, Director of the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Production Processes, Robotics, and Agile

Robots working alongside people as if it’s nothing out of the ordinary – the shape of things to come in production. But a lot of things will have to change to get that far. Of course safety issues will need to be addressed, but more than anything it will be important to involve workers in this development from the word go, and their fears will have to be taken seriously. Just how and why agility cannot solve all problems by itself, is explained by Prof. Dr.-Ing. Klaus Schlickenrieder in an interview with TRANSFER. Schlickenrieder is closely involved in this area in his role as the director of the Steinbeis Transfer Center Production Processes, Robotics, and Agile, as well as his role as director of the Institute of Production Engineering and Materials Testing at Ulm University of Applied Sciences.


Hello Professor Schlickenrieder. Digital transformation and the automation of production processes are moving ahead in leaps and bounds, and more and more of the work carried out by humans is being taken on by robots. What implications does this have for the industry?

I think for the production base to remain in Germany and stand its ground on a global level, you need automation. And I believe that robots have an especially important contribution to make in this respect. They should be seen as an opportunity, since they can take the burden off people and carry out physically demanding or monotonous tasks – so they can practically free up people and let them take on other tasks that are more challenging. I also believe that Germany as a manufacturing economy actually needs robots at the moment to bring production that has already been shifted abroad back to Germany again.

I think one problem with automation is that it will affect people who are perhaps not so well educated, the ones who are currently doing the more simple tasks. It goes without saying that automation fuels fear among these workers, which is why it’s important to bring them on board at the beginning. When companies automate, they have to work with the people who are affected by the move and ensure that they create jobs that will allow employees to identify with the new role again and see things as an improvement. If they do this properly, I believe there’s a good chance that employees will accept the move to automation. I’m not sure that robots will create more jobs, but they will maintain the number of jobs currently on offer.

One of your main areas of focus is human-robot collaboration, or HRC. What do you see as the biggest challenges of HRC, but also opportunities?

One of the biggest challenges I see Germany facing in this area is safety. It’s really important to make sure this aspect is dealt with properly. Other countries are less strict in this area, or they make fewer demands, which I think isn’t right because the safety of human beings is the supreme good. But it’s difficult to set up a safe working environment at the moment – one that allows robots to work at a company with people – because the standardization processes are still being worked on. I think this is one of the reasons lots of companies are grappling with HRC at the moment.

The second big challenge I see is with the employees themselves. The way I see it, at the beginning they’re incredibly skeptical about robots, or HRC, which is entirely understandable because they’re worried about losing their jobs. There’s no doubting that it will be challenging to bring these people on board, but it will be necessary. Employees need to be shown the opportunities presented by HRC – for example, they can be freed up from physically demanding or monotonous tasks, and collaborative robots – cobots – can take on dangerous tasks for them. HRC machines can work more accurately; they can work more uniformly; they can work faster. But people can make better decisions and people can make judgments – and people should also make decisions. HRC has the ability to combine the benefits of both worlds – the world of human beings and the world of robots.

Which trends do you believe will dictate the future of industrial robots, and what will they mean for the world of work?

I think there are three major areas here. The first relates to classic industrial robots. Numerous experts are currently looking into this important topic to try and make the programming of classic industrial robots faster and easier. If they work it out, the application areas will broaden significantly. At the moment, industrial robots are used extensively in serial and mass production – so they’re in big companies that have to produce in big batches. But the SMEs and manual trades are struggling in this area because it currently takes too long to program robots. If they can make that easier and quicker, the application areas for industrial robots will expand and SMEs will also be able to benefit from this. The second big trend is about mobile robots and mobile manipulators – HRC-capable robots on a mobile platform. They make it possible to automate things like transportation logistics and internal goods movement, quickly and effectively, in areas where muscle power is needed at the moment. And the third trend is the one I already mentioned: cobots. This is where people work alongside robots, which gives you an opportunity to enjoy the benefits on both fronts.

As I already mentioned, at the moment decisions are still made by people and I believe it will stay that way for the foreseeable future. I’m keeping a close eye on the developments going on in artificial intelligence, but I’m still quite skeptical as to when it will reach market maturity. I think I’ll still be here to witness it when it does happen, but in the near future people will be indispensable in production if you want to make decisions. 

Digital transformation is making companies question the areas of business they operate in and adapt the nature of organizations to the new challenges. Lots of companies believe the way forward is agility and value creation networks. What will they need to look out for if they move in this direction?

I can answer that by describing something I experienced myself. The most important factor is people, staff. Lots of companies see it like this: “Agile is hip, everyone’s ‘doing agile’ at the moment, so I’ve got to do it, too.” But what they underestimate is the cultural change this trend entails – within the company. You shouldn’t start thinking agility will solve all your problems. It’s just a different way of going about things. The problems are still there, just like they used to be, but now they’re solved in an agile way and that takes time. If anyone believes agility will immediately put their profits up, they’ll be a bit disappointed. What I recommend is that employees are involved right from the beginning and that you work through things step by step and tentatively try to understand what it means to be agile and what sort of impact, what sort of influence it will have on company culture. I observe small companies, which are much more adaptable, finding it easier to switch from the previous development approach to agile development. The big, more traditional companies, which have been shaped by hierarchies for many years, will find it difficult to make this transition. The other thing is that you need a lot of staying power. In my experience, it takes around five years for the culture of a company to change.

As for value creation networks, Industry 4.0 addresses horizontal, inter-company value creation networks. But I think in practice this is a really difficult thing to implement. Despite this, I think companies do need to engage in networks and “think networks,” because you can’t do everything internally anymore. And with networks, companies have an opportunity to focus on their own strengths and be part of the market as a collective unit. Agile technologies can help you to set up these company networks and operate effectively within them, but they’re not the only form of assistance.

Agility is not something that can be prescribed, it has to be lived out and believed in. It will never work if it’s just imposed on people top-down; employees have to want it and understand how they can benefit from it. I believe it offers major advantages. But first, there’s a rocky road ahead. Company management has to support this process, but it also has to be able to let go. One thing I often see is that the problem’s not the employees but the people in the middle, although it’s also in upper management.

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Prof. Dr.-Ing. Klaus Schlickenrieder (author)
Steinbeis Transfer Center for Production Processes, Robotics, and Agile (Horgau)