Anna Valente: “Robots for people will be the next generation ethical manufacturing paradigm.”

Anna Valente is a member of the Swiss Science Council SSC since 2020, and chairs the Automation, Robots and Machines Laboratory at the Institute of Systems and Technologies for Sustainable Production of SUPSI (Department of Innovative Technologies). In 2019, she received the Grand Prix for Innovation by the European Commission and, in 2021, Guy Parmelin, then Swiss president, awarded her the Swiss Dinno Prize, which honours companies, projects, or individuals for innovative digitalization.    

Anna Valente, when we think of robots, we tend to think of high-tech, sci-fi robots or one-armed, industrial robots used in factories. What kind of robots do you work on?

At the ARM laboratory, we work in the manufacturing space. We engineer and prototype mobile and shop-floor platforms – that is to say, moveable robots and factory-based robots – integrating processing technologies for high added-value products. Our solutions operate indoors and outdoors, often in collaboration with people, as industrial arms in factories or in very harsh environments, such as wind towers or power plants. Examples factory-based applications include collaborative robots, known as cobots, which assist human beings in executing highly complex assembly tasks, such as in the aerospace value chain. The robots we develop for outdoor applications are designed to climb vertical surfaces with variable curvatures and typically integrate processing technologies, such as lasers for corrosion removal and sensors for surface quality inspection. The purpose of these robots is to support human beings with running maintenance tasks in extremely exposed setups, dangerous heights, and uncomfortable ecosystems where dexterity applications are often limited, such as in pipes and tanks or overbridges and offshore systems.

In other words, you specialise in robots that are designed to take over the most difficult or hazardous jobs that humans are currently doing. But is ‘taking over’ the right way to think about these robots?

In Switzerland, the manufacturing value chain is heavily based on human skills, competences, and experience. The maintenance, repair, and overhaul industry – which is expected to grow to a market  value of 220 bn. euros by 2025 in Europe with a predicted constant annual growth of 17% – is only one  example where the workforce is highly skilled in running manufacturing tasks, but also in taking  complex decisions in critical operation scenarios. Men and women who execute complex tasks in harsh conditions, which often limits their dexterity, push their physical and mental boundaries to the extreme. This is likely to affect their perceptions of their ‘fit’ or ‘misfit’ to their environment. Human cognitive appraisal and emotional reactions are key to the ‘fit’ between the individual and their (physical and psychosocial) ecosystem. These employees need resources to perform their jobs efficiently and simultaneously safeguard their health and well-being.

But this is not enough. Every year, there are 5’500 fatal and 3.3 mio. non-fatal accidents among expert human operators working in the industrial maintenance value chain around the world. These deaths and injuries are not caused by poor safety measures or human behaviour, but are due to harsh environments, unforeseen events, and unpredictable malfunctions that these employees have to contend with and which dramatically increase the level of danger.

Switzerland has the opportunity to set a global example by embracing unprecedented and innovative work practices and exploiting technology that ensures public health. Our robots are designed to collaborate with human beings and, being conscious of the cognitive and physical needs of people, to adapt their priorities with the aim of preserving the well-being of human beings they work with.

Even if the ‘robots kill jobs’ narrative is arguably too simple, since they work with humans on complex and difficult tasks, do you find that people accept working with robots in their respective workplaces?

Collaborative robots, mobile as well as serial arms, are designed to co-exist with people and represent a major opportunity to secure people’s skills and livelihoods while taking over the lower added-value tasks. The introduction of collaborative robots in the workplace could lead to up-skilling and re-skilling professional profiles and thus contribute to the creation and growth of new competences. People trained to execute manual tasks would therefore be able to exploit the latest generation of technologies and robotic platforms in their work. As a result, they would increase their professional opportunities while transitioning their competences to new industrial applications.

A frictionless adoption of technology in manufacturing value chains where human skills were central requires highly transdisciplinary teams – ranging from mechatronics and automation to social sciences – to study and enable this transition. In general, introducing automation and specifically robots in the workplace demands a radically new vision. At the ARM laboratory, we call it ‘ethical manufacturing’, which aims at preserving the central role of human beings, thus nurturing employees’ unique competencies and skills, while reducing the cognitive and physical burden caused by production practices. The harshness of the environment, dexterity to execute specific tasks, equipment/task load, throughput and learning proficiency – these are all key factors where we believe a new generation of robot-designers could bring major benefits.

You work in Ticino and have described SUPSI as a bridge to the south of Europe. How important are international collaborations in your field?

For several years now, SUPSI and the Department of Innovative Technologies in particular have played an instrumental role in blending expertise to target excellence in education, research, and technology transfer. We see these three branches as closely interrelated and forming a virtuous cycle, which relies on strategic collaborations at the national and international scales. The vast majority of our international strategic network, which includes research as well as industrial actors, was established primarily as a result of European funding instruments, which together with national funding have continuously enabled multiple stakeholders to get together and exploit synergies to accomplish long-term manufacturing goals. Preserving our presence in Europe enables the persistent engagement in initiatives and partnerships that target excellence in manufacturing.

This is also a central concern of the Swiss Science Council. Switzerland plays a central role in the European scientific ecosystem, and its high contribution and commitment to European funding programs secures a long-term sustainable development in strategic industrial sectors. The big challenges that we are currently facing at the ARM laboratory, along with our European partners, is the ethical management of data when setting up the infrastructure for humans and robots to collaborate and how to ensure a next generation of intelligent equipment that cannot be armed by external attacks.