The KIT spinoff robodev GmbH has developed an intelligent module construction kit for a profitable production of small quantities in manufacturing enterprises.
Robot-supported automation is experiencing a boom. Nowadays, the automobile branch in particular would be quite inconceivable without modern industrial robots. From punching sheet metal components to the complete car body, whole automation lines are in operation partly without any human action. It is no coincidence that the automobile industry has become the paragon in this area. As a rule, unlike in many other branches, extremely large quantities are involved that all have to be produced according to exactly the same pattern. “The cost of a simple automation solution is at least 80,000 euro. If smaller quantities, below 10,000 items per month, are involved, this investment will usually not pay its way. Slightly below 75 per cent of processes in the German manufacturing industry are therefore manual or have only been automated to a small degree,” explains Dr Andreas Bihlmaier, co-founder of robodev GmbH.
When he was writing his doctoral thesis at the KIT Institute for Process Control and Robotics (IPR), Bihlmaier looked at the issue of cost-pushers and arrived at the conclusion that in particular, integration costs are a major cost factor. They build up when specially trained engineers spend days, and sometimes even several weeks, integrating automation solutions in businesses. Gripped by ambition, he and his co-founders Dr Julien Mintenbeck und Dr Jens Liedke, who were also doing their doctorates at the Institute, decided to develop an innovative solution for the economical production and assembly of small quantities: a system with a network of modules which, like in a construction kit, can be flexibly combined and adapted within a plant to the respective product or the individual process within a minimum of time, which also makes its employment worthwhile when small quantities are involved.
robodev combines hardware components with ingenious software control, providing a uniform system that is easy to use and does not require an expert to assemble it and put it into operation. “One or two days of training will do,” says developer Bihlmaier. Depending on the respective requirements, usable components range from simple sensors and actors to sophisticated image data evaluation and applications in robotics.
Given the considerable encouragement the three founders received both at the Institute and from industrial partners, in early 2015, they decided to take part in KIT’s Spring School – Entrepreneurship for Researchers, where, for the first time, they had a look at financing issues and the protection of intellectual property. “This was the first step towards founding an enterprise,” says Bihlmaier, looking back. This was followed by taking part in the KIT Accelerator upCAT, where the team elaborated their business concept. Together with mentors, the prospective entrepreneurs Bihlmaier, Mintenbeck and Liedke analysed the huge market their idea was based on. What above all helped at this stage was communicating with other start-ups as well as talks with consultants from the Center for Interdisciplinary Entrepreneurship, CIE for short, and the KIT start-up incubator.
Although all three members of the founding team did their doctorate at the same institute, they have contributed in-depth knowledge from different subject areas, which is also reflected in the firm’s internal organisation. Bihlmaier, who graduated in computer science, is responsible for software development at robodev, while Mintenbeck studied electrical engineering and mechatronics and is now responsible for the field of electronics. Mechanical engineer Liedke looks after all topics in the fields of mechanics and propulsion technology. “This interdisciplinarity helps us view our business from different angles, which is of considerable importance in developing integrated solutions,” says Bihlmaier. “But at the beginning„ we still had to master several challenges. For example, there was the issue of financing the business. In the meantime, we have developed a different view of things. Now, it is not so much technical ingenuity that our activities centre on but business management aspects.”
robodev has now signed contracts on several pilot projects both with medium-sized enterprises and with major corporations. In addition, with Staufen.Digital Invest, the founders have opted for a renowned investor that focuses on technology and software businesses. For the next months, the team have planned to leave their rooms at the Institute and move into their own business quarters, and also to increase their staff. “We want to make use of the experience gained in the initial pilot projects in order to further develop the company and successively establish it on the German market,” says Bihlmaier.
Dr. Andreas Bihlmaier