German researchers tap into Chinese research speed

"Future Workshop" opened on Tuesday as part of a new international research institute, the Fraunhofer Project Center for Smart Manufacturing at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
German researchers tap into Chinese research speed
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

A robot guides people to assemble equipment.

German researchers tap into Chinese research speed
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Robots make drones.

German researchers tap into Chinese research speed
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Giant robotic arms polish cars.

How will our factories work in the future? A new venture in Lingang, an emerging smart manufacturing base in coastal Pudong, may give us some insights.

In the “Future Workshop,” robots work on their own assembling drones and polishing cars. They are smart enough to tell human workers what to do next, and point out when they do something wrong.

“Future Workshop” opened on Tuesday as part of a new international research institute, the Fraunhofer Project Center for Smart Manufacturing at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

It is one of the 10 Fraunhofer project centers, the first in China, and fourth in Asia, following two in Japan and one in South Korea.

There are thousands of German companies, mostly industrial leaders, in Shanghai.The Fraunhofer Society, founded in Munich in 1949, is Europe's largest applied research institution and ranked second among world research institutions by Thomson Reuters in 2016.

The Fraunhofer center is a tie-up between Germany’s Industry 4.0 and the “Made in China” strategy.

Industry 4.0 is regarded as Germany’s fourth industrial revolution and embraces artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things.

“Industry 4.0 is revolutionary, but it took a while to speed up in Germany,” Thomas Bauernhansl, head of Fraunhofer Society, told Shanghai Daily. “But in China, you pick it up very fast, and now you are finding your own way or own interpretation of the fourth industrialization revolution to make it fit to your industry, possibilities and technologies.”

Speed, according to Bauernhansl, is one of the most important characteristics of Chinese manufacturing. He estimates that in China the speed of turning ideas in labs into products at markets is about seven times faster than Germany.

Germany is an old economy and it takes time to change old infrastructure to new infrastructure. “When you create a completely new infrastructure, you don’t need this old stuff. You can be fast,” he said.

“China is more open to new technology, very flexible in strategy and developing new sectors in industry,” he said. “Also, in China, there are many new companies coming up with a lot of innovation, and you are very strong in electronic manufacturing.”

”We hope to bring in our experiences about how to handle higher levels of automation, how to improve the level of automation and finally how to improve the level of quality,” he said. “Our target is really to learn together and to create something new, unique, better than anything that you can find in the market.”

He called it the “Made in China” solution.

“Through cooperation, we hope to advance our technologies and make our technologies widely used,” said Wang Hao, a professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

The “Future Workshop” has displayed how today’s advanced technologies are used in carmaking, shipbuilding and aerospace manufacturing, among other sectors.

“We got inspiration from our German co-workers and made our own robot,” said Zhang Ping, a postgraduate student from Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

He took part in the design of a robot, embedded with a camera, projection system and artificial intelligence, that can guide workers how to put up equipment and alert them if they do something wrong. 

“Workers don’t need to read through instruction books. Every step is displayed in pictures projected to their desks,” Zhang said.

Wang Jue, another student, took part in the design of a robot worker. 

“It can precisely pick the right screw for the right hole, and works to assemble it,” he said.

Fraunhofer’s Chinese project center will drive Lingang to be a smart manufacturing center with global influence, and help in the city’s development into a global innovation center, said Chen Jie, Party chief of Lingang Development Administration.

Bauernhans hopes the launch of the project center will inspire more foreign research institutions to come to China.

The city’s new measures to promote local innovation stress that universities, business and foreign research institutions are encouraged to work together.

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