To better serve customers in Germany and the wider European Union, PowerON has established a subsidiary GmbH which will be operating from September. Commenting on the expansion, Dr. Markus Henke, PowerON CEO, noted: “An upside of the Covid-19 crisis – if there is one – is a significant uptick of interest from companies wanting to automate production processes: robots are immune to Covid and keep people away from harm.”
Dr. Henke observed that implementing major changes, like new ways of automation, required investment over long time horizons. “Germany and the European Union lead the world in robotics and automation. At PowerON we saw a significant increase in enquiries during the COVID-19 shutdown, so we decided to bring our plans for Germany forward.” He said there were clear signs that companies were planning ahead to prepare for the next pandemic, aiming to automate a wider range of tasks that today put people at risk.” Dr. Henke: “Although it’s still early days for PowerON, we are encouraged that customers recognize the transformational possibilities that PowerON’s technology bring to robotics.”
As PowerON GmbH gears up, people are being added in customer support and business development roles. “Now we can support customers across the EU from the same time zone” said Dr. Henke, “and, over time, PowerON GmbH will begin product manufacture close to end customers”.
PowerON GmbH is based in Dresden. Dr. Henke said that the choice of location was easy: “We have a strong collaboration already with the TU Dresden.” Amongst the largest technology-oriented universities in Germany, TU Dresden was named a “University of Excellence” by the German Research Society, recognizing the strong track record of innovation. The past few years have seen large research institutes, including Fraunhofer, Helmholtz and Leibniz establishing around TU Dresden, augmenting a vibrant start-up environment. “To grow a game changing start up in robotics now, Dresden is the obvious place to be. By setting up there PowerON can access world-class facilities as well as strengthening customer support”, Dr. Henke concluded.
Even today, robots struggle with tasks that people find easy: harvesting sensitive fruit, moving over difficult terrain and care tasks for patients and convalescents are beyond current capabilities. This is set to change: scientists at TU Dresden are developing a new generation of robots and robotic components. As part of the Emmy Noether Programme, 2 million Euros from the German Research Foundation (DFG) is supporting the newly-established “MEiTNER – Mulitfunctional Dielectric Electronics for Next Generation Soft Robotics” research group. Over the next six years, the MEiTNER will deliver smart and flexible materials, manufacturing processes and complex bionic components for highly capable, adaptive, robotic systems.
Conventional robots use hard components controlled by rigid electronics and are useful for manufacturing processes needing repetitive, pre-programmed movements – kept away from people for safety. There is a pressing need for more flexibility and adaptability if robot applications are to increase, freeing people from mundane tasks. “Flexible robot systems will open up completely new applications that seem unimaginable to engineers today. We draw inspiration from the natural world around us – the end result of millions of years of evolution.” says Dr. Markus Henke, MEiTNER group leader at TU Dresden and PowerON’s CEO. For example, bionic robots made of flexible materials can mimic insects – and crawl into danger areas for disaster reconnaissance. The same technology gives sense of touch to robot “gripper systems”- robot hands.
Dr. Henke noted that robots with adaptive, intelligent, gripper systems can finally take over heavy work from people, while safely working together with human colleagues. “We see applications medium-term in harvesting robots for sensitive agricultural products such as asparagus, avocados or kiwis and for e-commerce fulfilment centres.” said Dr. Henke. Many applications in medical technology will open up as the technology matures: intelligent, lifelike, prosthetic components, medication pumps built as soft skins and much more. “I know this sounds like science fiction”, Dr. Henke observed, “but these are already demonstrated in our laboratory. MEiTNER is a significant step towards commercial readiness.”
MEiTNER is further developing flexible electronic systems made of multifunctional dielectric elastomers, often referred to as “artificial muscles”. Dielectric elastomers are sophisticated polymers incorporating electrically conductive particles. Dr. Henke: “We work at micro-scale now and we see great possibilities for nano-scale implementations as MEiTNER improves our processes.” Dresden researchers are cooperating with the Biomimetics Laboratory, led by Professor Iain Anderson, at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Under an exclusive arrangement, MEiTNER outputs will be commercialized by PowerON, a new company with operations in Auckland and Dresden. Katie Wilson, PowerON CTO said: “We are grateful for the DFG’s support, which will accelerate PowerON’s commercialization mission. I look forward to working closely with the Dresden colleagues throughout MEiTNER.”
PowerON’s CTO, Katie Wilson, commented that: “With the launch of our new website, it’s a good opportunity to acknowledge the R&D Project Grant received recently from Callaghan Innovation, New Zealand’s innovation agency. Callaghan is providing 40% co-funding as the PowerON team works towards customer samples of elastomer electronic devices – notably our gates and oscillators.” Ms. Wilson noted further that customer response to PowerON’s offer of tactile detector arrays for robotics had been strong: “It’s clear that our patented geometric switch detector arrays are filling a gap in the market – and we plan to back that up with additional devices based round our proprietary continuum switch technology.”
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