A new field of robotics technology known as ‘collaborative robotics’ – where the robot interacts physically with human beings in a shared workspace – is starting to gain ground in French industry. Interview with David Heriban, CEO of Percipio Robotics, who recently won the Innovation prize at France’s first national Collaborative Robotics competition. He talks to us about the future of collaborative robotics in France.

[Portrait of an Innovator] David Heriban is bringing micromanipulation to the industry of the future

An innovator? Yes, though robotics was not his first interest. ″At first I was more interested in aeronautics, although as a child I liked robots as much as any other young boy… “ Heriban was crazy about technology, and later on about robotics as he liked the complexity of the systems. ″I really started to get interested in robotics when I realised that it was a very complex and very technical area which combined a lot of different fields.”  Having passed his high school diploma in science subjects, specialising in engineering science, he went on to the higher education establishment of Mechanics and Microtechnology which is part of the University of Besançon, in eastern France. He then joined the Femto Laboratory to work on his final year project, ″first of all in the micromanipulation department and then in the robotics department, in micro-robotics, to be precise.   He joined the faculty in the mid-2000s, a time when computer numerical control machines were just beginning to appear in industry.  

The disruptive idea? The Chronogrip robot that Heriban has developed manipulates and assembles high precision mechanical parts which range from a few millimetres to a few thousandths of millimetres in size. This is in fact a genuine example of a ‘cobot’, as high-precision manipulations are carried out by the robot working with a human technician. ″A robot isn’t intelligent enough to understand what is happening at micro-world scale, so it needs a person, but the person needs the robot to manipulate objects with high levels of precision at this scale,” explains Heriban, pointing out that ″the idea behind Chronogrip is to be extremely precise, to help the person concerned to assemble the components.″ The ‘cobot’ has an interface which enables the technician to make hand movements which are then translated with a much higher level of precision. When transmitted through the cobot to the item being manufactured or treated, the operator’s hand movements become 100 times more precise, with 1,000 times finer control, and image resolution that is 50 times higher than seen by the naked eye. The advantage of Chronogrip lies in the fact that it can be used in a range of fields from watchmaking to microsystems (chip) assembly.

Why the particular interest in micromanipulation? His interest in micromanipulation arose by accident. When he joined the research lab which was working on micro-robotics, he had the opportunity to work for four years on a prototype of a micromanipulation robot. ″Micromanipulation was a new frontier. I became interested in the technical aspects of the discipline, partly because there were very few people working in this area.” The young engineer found the exploratory side of the field of micromanipulation particularly attractive: ″I was working with pioneers in this scientific field and so I became to some extent a manufacturing pioneer myself,” recalls Heriban. He really believes in the potential of micromanipulation, seeing uses in a wide range of areas from the medical sector to the space industry.

So how does this affect us? David Heriban believes that the field of micromanipulation is bound to grow: ″There are many sectors where miniaturisation is a key part of the process.” In addition, it is likely to attract wide investor interest because ″when you manufacture something very small, it takes less energy, you reduce the environmental impact and you get more productivity from the same amount of material.” For the moment the young entrepreneur is targeting his robot at the manufacturing sector and is betting that collaborative robotics technology will be used in factories in France on a wide scale in the near future. A clear example is the watchmaking industry, where this technology is highly suited to the assembly of highly complex mechanical watches. In fact miniaturisation seems to have a great future, way beyond the confines of manufacturing. Effortless manipulation of miniaturisation technologies will have an impact on the space industry – in particular on satellite design – and also in the medical field. “In fact this [the medical] field is where we’ll see the most progress, especially when it comes to prosthesis implants – insulin pumps, pacemakers, sensors, and so on,″ predicts Heriban.

And what does the future hold? As robotics is one of the thirty-four priority areas listed by the French government as part of the New Industrial France initiative, this field clearly has great growth potential. David Heriban believes that investment in the field is ″needed if France wants to still be active in manufacturing in twenty years’ time.”  And specifically collaborative robotics technology is likely to come into widespread use in French factories in the very near future, if the basic challenge can be met: “On the one hand we have to prove to an operator that his/her assistance is essential for the robot to work properly and, on the other hand, we have to prove to the factory manager that using robots really increases productivity and is worth the initial investment. My definition of the factory of the future is bringing production as close as possible to consumption so as to reduce our environmental impact. By keeping people as our source of intelligence and using robots for executing tasks, we’ll be able to benefit to the maximum from the great flexibility robotics can offer.″  Heriban predicts that by 2020, a hundred or so Chronogrip robots will be in use in the state-of-the-art watchmaking industry. Meanwhile on the research front, he and his team are working on developing other robotic systems for a number of high-tech sectors, and aim to have their technology installed in hundreds of different types of precision equipment worldwide by 2025.

By Anthéa Delpuech