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“Hannover Messe proves once again that a human-centred approach is the best way forward”

We can most definitely consider Flanders Make’s first attendance at the Hannover Messe a success. Our stand and our MAKE LAB or mobile research laboratory attracted a constant flow of visitors.

“This shows that the results that we shared and the technological solutions that we presented are relevant – even in an international context”, says Dirk Torfs, CEO of Flanders Make.

“In our research, we focus strongly on the digital transformation of the industry. Smart, connected plants are of crucial importance: they allow to accelerate and improve production, save costs and offer strong, customised products. That is key to keep production activities in Flanders and even to bring production in low-wage countries back here.

However, creating such agile production equipment is only possible by focussing on production innovation. Therefore, next to product-related research, production-related research is also of vital importance. We need machines that are able to manufacture these high-tech smart products, machines that are more energy-efficient, require less maintenance or can be more easily adapted for manufacturing product variants.

The technology required for this – smart algorithms, artificial intelligence, robots – give human operators a central role. As said by Dr. Jochen Köckler, chairman of the board of directors of the Deutsche Messe, at the end of the Hannover Messe, technology should not be used to compete with humans but to support them. This was a recurrent theme with all exhibitors, us included.”

First international performance of our MAKE LAB

The eye-catcher on our stand was a virtual reality set-up with a cobot or collaborative robot. Together with a virtual cobot, visitors could check the quality of glued joints on a physical bonnet. This combination makes the set-up very suited as an exploration tool for designers of working environments and for engineers and also as a validation tool for measuring the potential physical-cognitive strain caused by human/robot collaboration on operators.

It was also the first time that we presented our MAKE LAB at an international fair. We use this mobile research lab to literally bring new technologies to companies in view of encouraging them to innovate. We focus strongly on working in a modern production environment, with smart wearables, robots, augmented reality training and so on.

“It was no coincidence that we chose to present these specific technologies. In Flanders, we have a huge potential of highly skilled knowledge workers on the one hand and a clear incentive from the government to innovate on the other. At the same time, we face high wage costs and an ageing population. The human-centred approach as was shown at the Hannover Messe is therefore not only the best but also the only way forward to successfully lead our companies on a path towards digital transformation.

Ecosystem (Open) innovation as key to success

“Flanders can be proud of its industry. There are plenty of fine examples of companies that jumped on the bandwagon in an early stage and have in no time developed into lead plants. But there is more than these pioneers alone. A study that we performed last year together with PwC has shown that the vast majority is ready to invest in digital technologies. We also notice that an increasing number of companies recognise the benefit of open innovation. We help companies by bringing them together in a cross-company ecosystem in which they can develop solutions to shared technological challenges. We create ecosystems for innovation to which we contribute with our research. In this way, we prepare our companies for the future.” 

Dirk Torfs is CEO of Flanders Make, the research centre for the Flemish manufacturing industry.