Automation helps with COVID-19, energy efficiency, robotics, non-contact motion control, STEM

Automation innovation has opportunities to help with COVID-19 pandemic response, energy efficiency, robotics, non-contact motion control using superconductivity, training and by creating increased interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

By Mark T. Hoske August 10, 2020


Learning Objectives

  • COVID-19 has increased digitalization efforts.
  • Automation, such as bionics (lifelike robotics) and education modules, can help science, technology, engineering and match (STEM) efforts.
  • Non-contact motion control has been commercialized.

Electric, pneumatic and process automation help interconnect engineering-related workers during the COVID-19 pandemic; Industry 4.0 and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) support and enable optimized automation architectures; bionics (robotics mimicking nature) inspire future engineers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and offer innovation to integrate into operations; training courses and automation modules help students and teachers; contactless motion control uses superconductivity. These were among the innovations discussed and demonstrated by Festo in several online events in July leading up to a planned Festo North American online tradeshow Aug. 5 and 6, which is expected to be archived until Sept. 5

The global pandemic cancelled Hannover Fair, IMTS and other shows and conferences where Festo would have exhibited and discussed technologies and trends. The company, in response, is making more of an online effort to share information.

COVID-19, digitalization, cybersecurity, digital twin

Dr. Frank Melzer, member of the Festo management board, product and technology management,

COVID-19 has brought many changes to private and professional lives globally. Festo, Melzer said, already had a solid digital infrastructure and bolstered cybersecurity with installation of 6,000 virtual private network (VPN) nodes in one day. The company continued production especially for critical industries under very sanitary conditions. Rapid engineering projects including building face masks and emergency respirators within four weeks; parts are available to supply to others.

Festo is among companies on Germany’s Industrie 4.0 committee (with 150 companies and 600 participants), working on a framework for future industry.

It’s important that systems can talk to each other, Melzer said, to create efficiency with digital interoperability.

Dr. Ansgar Kriwet, Festo member of the management board, sales, said the Hannover Fair theme this year would have been industrial transformation, and the Coronavirus crisis is demonstrating importance and necessity of industrial transformation. This includes more employee home offices, higher data bandwidth at a high level of cybersecurity, safety distancing with high efficiency and reliability on the production floor. Better control of machines with better sensors enables more mobility in production. The COVID-19 pandemic created:

  1. Demand in certain products because of panic buying, shifted production volume and supply chains.
  2. Supply chain flexibility as some suppliers were disrupted.The pandemic also showed effects of globalization will move factories closer to demand. Longer supply chains are too vulnerable.
  3. Huge demand for certain products, such as for respirators, medical supplies, food and beverage and other critical products. Cloud-based IT infrastructure connects factories allowing flexible worldwide production. Machines that work with digital twins allow operator to look into the machine to improve production processes.

Pneumatic efficiency improvements with tighter control

Marcus Stemler, Festo product manager, digital pneumatics, demonstrated how production can become more efficient with digital technologies. Tighter controls can reduce pneumatic energy consumption in some applications, using sensors and digital pneumatic valves, to decrease lift pressure to 3 bar, down from 6 bar, and using just 1 bar pressure for downward movement. Stemler said 60% or more energy savings can result, for instance, in loading tires into a curing press, controlled by Festo Motion Terminal, said to be the first digitalized pneumatic valve terminal.

It’s important to look at most efficient technologies, electric or pneumatic, for particular applications.

Melzer said electric motors and drives can excel in moving quickly from point to point, but if an application requires a hold position, pneumatics can win. A Festo balancer lifts up to 1000 kg (more than 1.1 U.S. tons) and can hold it in place, useful in automotive and other industrial applications.

Learning automation, manufacturing technologies

Dr. Hans Jörg Stotz, member of the management board of Festo Didactic SE, said industries need to bring digital competence to more applications with Industry 4.0 training covering technologies, business models and life-long learning. Applications include cyber-physical factories, module-based factories, and learning centers where students and teachers can learn without disrupting production.

Stotz said collaborative robots may create some concern among workers, and training is available to help optimize processes and train workers with collaborative robots.

Bionic projects inspire STEM interest, logistics, robotic advances

For 2020, Festo Bionic developed an autonomous flock of flying robotic birds, explained Karoline von Häfen, Festo head of bionic projects. The 42 g bionic swift birds use artificial feathers to improve energy efficiency by closing the gap between feathers in the downstroke and opening the gap in the upstroke to save energy, von Häfen said. The birds fly independently on predetermined paths and use indoor global positioning system (GPS) to adjust automatically if off course. Applications for factory of future include precision localization of goods or material flows. From a distance, the small flock of birds look like their real counterparts.

Festo has advanced technologies used in a soft robotic hand developed last year by adding an artificial bone structure and a wrist for 12 degrees freedom. The glove for the robotic hand has 113 tactile force sensors in a matrix design; using a haptic glove can allow a human to feel what the robot feels, von Häfen said.

At the wrist, a camera offers visual object recognition with artificial intelligence (AI) to improve learning, and the robotic hand and wrist are mounted on a robot that balances and travels on a ball. To maintain balance, a neural network was developed in close cooperation with the ETH Zurich (ETH is a German acronym for Swiss Federal Institute of Technology). The system stabilizes itself while moving autonomously with an on-board energy supply. Humans and robots are changing to work together in workspaces, von Häfen said. Festo also is working on safe robotic systems designed to help humans in monotonous or dangerous work situations.

Non-contact motion control with superconductivity

Michael Schöttner, Festo head of SupraMotion, demonstrated commercialized Festo contactless motion control using superconductivity. The low-power system provides automated friction-free wireless movement, advantageous in many medical, biomedical, or pharmaceutical applications.

It uses permanent magnets and superconductive cooling (about -180°C) to create smooth precision movements. Vibration, hovering rollers, measuring and weighing, vertical and horizontal transfer, and rotation in a sealed tube are among the configurations; a microgripper also is available for lab automation applications, Schöttner said.

Mark T. Hoske is content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media,


KEYWORDS: Motion control, robotics, pneumatics


What digital transformation, advanced pneumatics, robotics, or advanced motion controls are helping you be more innovative and effective?

ONLINE extra

Read more about Festo Bionics and Festo Didactic and Festo digital transformation. 

Original content can be found at Control Engineering.

Author Bio: Mark Hoske has been Control Engineering editor/content manager since 1994 and in a leadership role since 1999, covering all major areas: control systems, networking and information systems, control equipment and energy, and system integration, everything that comprises or facilitates the control loop. He has been writing about technology since 1987, writing professionally since 1982, and has a Bachelor of Science in Journalism degree from UW-Madison.