EU mulls new rules for era of ‘intelligent’ factories, robots

Tesla Autobots

Laut ICCT "frisieren" Autobauer Fahrzeuge und Prüfstande [Flickr/Steve Jurvetson]

The European Commission wants to usher in the era of artificial intelligence and robotisation in factories with a “digitising industry” strategy due in April.

EU officials in Brussels are worried that Europe is lagging behind in the race to bring its industry into the digital era. Part of the reason, they argue, is the legal uncertainty surrounding robotics in factories, which raise a whole new range of issues.

Günter Oettinger, Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, hosted a meeting with stakeholders on 11 January to flag legal and regulatory barriers in preparation for his upcoming “digitising industry” strategy.

Hartmut Rauen, Deputy Executive Director of the German Engineering Association (VDMA), called for EU regulations “to undergo an Industry 4.0 check with a view to amending or abolishing regulations that stand in the way of innovation. After all, the future of European manufacturing depends on the successful digitisation of industry”, he said.

Industry 4.0 – the digitalisation of industry – is a term that was coined in Germany and Oettinger, who is also German, has picked up the baton with enthusiasm.

“The message I received today is very clear: there is an urgent need for European industry, Member States and European Commission to act together in order to benefit fully from the opportunities offered by digital technologies in a European digital single market,” Oettinger wrote on his blog.

According to a preparatory document for the meeting, the Commission is looking at four unsolved legal issues.

  • First, who to consider liable when robots take charge, as autonomous machines cannot be considered simple tools anymore. This poses a challenge to existing liability rules where a legal entity (person or company) is ultimately responsible when something goes wrong.
  • Second, the Commission is assessing how to better integrate robotics in the work place. While the previous generation of robots required heavy safety measures and specific legislation due to health and safety concerns, the progress made on artificial intelligence (AI) and sensors allow machines to slow down or stop when a worker is nearby. Thus, the Commission is considering whether new product safety regulation is needed for the AI-based robotic era, as has been the case for drones.
  • Third, the executive wants to improve the protection for citizens and businesses in case of a malfunctioning software.
  • Finally, the introduction of “intelligent” machines may pose fresh challenges in terms of data protection, as robots could potentially monitor workers’ performance to adapt the manufacturing process. Although much of this information may not be stored, this new source of data is not covered by the digital single market in the making.

The executive is currently assessing whether new legislation is needed. Oettinger has already met three times with public authorities and representatives of the industry aiming at presenting his action plan during the Hannover Fair on 25 April.

A network of digitalised regions

The strategy is also expected to prioritise the creation of regional digital innovation hubs to ensure that all firms, in particular SMEs, can complete the transition to the digitised factory, or Industry 4.0.

>>Read: Traditional SMEs face an uphill recovery

“Our overall strategy aims at establishing a link between national and regional initiatives like Industrie 4.0, Smart Industry, Industrie du Futur, High Value Manufacturing, etc. thereby providing the necessary degree of coordination and helping to reach critical mass where individual initiatives cannot achieve the right scale on their own,” Oettinger said.

But Europe has a lot to do. In its preparatory document, the European Commission admitted that EU companies “have missed out to reap the full potential of on-line platforms”, the all-powerful players in the digital ecosystem. In order to close the gap at least on the industrial front, the Commission wants to support the creation of digital industrial platforms, building on the European leadership in sectors such as automotive, aeronautics and energy.

To that end, the executive will invest €1 billion through Horizon 2020, the EU’s flagship research programme. Meanwhile, it expects up to €3 billion from the member states and industry. Additional funds could come from the European Fund for Strategic Investment, the new guarantee scheme embedded in the EU investment plan.

>>Read: Moedas: Europe’s industries have to go digital

The Industry 4.0 concept, and its promise of autonomous machines talking to machines has gained traction among global business leaders and policymakers. It will be the overarching theme of this years World Economic Forum, to be held in Davos on 20-23 January.

But this buzzword may also hide a darker reality. “All around the world, the evidence shows that recovery from this recession was much slower than in previous recessions,” Guntram Wolff, director of Bruegel think tank affirmed. “Some scholars argue that this is a result of the changing economy and the rise of automation in the workplace,” he added.

The digitalisation of industry – or Industry 4.0, as Germans call it – is being touted as a revolution that will fundamentally alter the way companies produce and consume. Politicians in Europe regard it as a game-changer with a potential to re-industrialise the continent and wrest back production and manufacturing they have lost to regions such as Asia.

Around half of EU member states are currently implementing initiatives related to Industry 4.0. On top of these national efforts, last April, Commissioner Günther Oettinger defended an EU-wide strategy. He argued that it could ensure "scale", mobilise actors with value chains spreading across Europe and support interoperability and standardization.

Besides automation, the European Commission has pinpointed access to technology for SMEs and non-digital industries, data ownership, security, standards and skills as important issues.

  • April 2016: The European Commission is expected to unveil its digitising industry action plan.
  • Second half of 2016: New rules to facilitate the arrival of high automation processes.

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