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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
IFR considers new events and activities
IFR considers new events and activities
Paul Johnston took over the chairmanship of the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) in June 2003 from Mike Wilson. In this interview with Anna Kochan, associate editor of Industrial Robot, Paul Johnston explains how he intends to continue with the many initiatives that Mike Wilson commenced during his term of office (Plate 1).
An engineer and a lawyer by training, Paul Johnston, a Canadian, is well equipped for the task of leading the IFR. Most importantly, he has extensive experience of working with robotics, first gained when he worked on Canada's contribution to the international space station. “Canada was responsible for the global servicing system, a major robotic system incorporating a larger version of the Canadarm, which is the arm on the shuttle,” he explains.
Plate 1 Paul Johnston, Chairman of the IFR
Currently, Paul Johnston is the Vice- president of operations at Precarn, a Canadian not-for-profit organisation that manages research into robotics and intelligent systems. In a typical year, the organisation manages 8-9 million Canadian dollars. The research involved is at both industrial and university levels and covers computer-based systems with a capability to perceive, reason and act. So, sensing and vision technology, expert systems and robotics all come within the Precarn remit.
Johnston views the role of the IFR as closely related to the activities of the Precarn not-for-profit organisation. He splits the role into three parts. The first is to promote information exchange at an international level. The second is to collect and generate statistics. The third is to promote research into robotics and the use of robots by industry.
In the pursuit of these goals, the International Symposium of Robotics (ISR) that the IFR organises every year is crucial. It is an occasion that brings together people in the industry to exchange information, to discuss and analyse the latest statistics and to talk about the latest research and developments. Currently, the ISR aims to meet the total needs of the entire robotics sector. But, Johnston says, the question has arisen as to whether one annual event is sufficient. “Within the IFR, we are asking ourselves whether there should be two events a year. Maybe there should be different styles of event, such as one for industry and one for the academics,” he asks. The IFR will assess the opportunities for introducing further events by studying where the industry is heading, not just the markets but also the research and the manufacturing organisations.
Meanwhile, the ISR continues to expand and evolve. The 2004 symposium to be held in Paris in March will be the 35th of its kind. This, says Johnston, is an astonishing record for a conference and proves the need for it. Over the years, the annual conference has developed quite considerably and has become quite sophisticated, he adds, indicating that it is now an event that is more about systems and integration than just about robots.
The role of the IFR as a resource for statistical information has been extremely strong since the early days of the Federation. The annual statistics produced in the form of a document called World Robotics provides quantitative data on sales and markets and types of robot. “It is extremely valuable both to the member associations and to company members,” says Johnston. Changes are, however, on the way. In the past, it was the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe that was responsible for the compilation of the annual statistics. In particular, it was the UN's Jan Carlsson who was instrumental in conducting this work. Now, however, Carlsson is retiring and the IFR has moved the statistical function to VDMA, the organisation that represents the interests of the robotics industry in Germany. Johnston does not expect this migration of responsibilities to alter much, if anything. If there is to be any changes, he says, it would be the expansion of the service robots area, one that Jan Carlsson has already started to develop. The problem of covering service robots is one of definition. It is an area that is growing fast and is of great interest to IFR members but, according to Johnston, a good definition is yet to be agreed.
The third role of the IFR is to promote the use of robotics both for industrial and service applications, to encourage research into robotics, and to generally act as a PR forum. While the International Symposium obviously has a part to play in the accomplishment of this role, other media must also be involved. In the past, the IFR published a newsletter roughly four times a year. The last one was produced more than a year back and a replacement form of communication is being planned. Johnston says that the IFR has set up a communications working group to assess how the Federation should organise the activity in future. “In this communications review, we are starting from the bottom up and conducting a series of consultations with the members to identify their likes and dislikes. We basically want to learn what our members need to help them do their jobs better. Then we will be able to create a plan for revising the communications,” explains Johnston. The working group's initial report is due to be discussed at the next meeting of the national coordinators in March 2004, which should then lead to a plan of action. One idea under consideration is the creation of a web- based forum. Another is the introduction of regional or sector-based meetings and workshops.
While the IFR will continue to fulfil the same roles as previously, members can expect to see some changes in future. As Paul Johnston says, “my belief is that the basic value the IFR provides in terms of information exchange and best practice will continue to exist but the way it does business will be somewhat different.”
Anna KochanAssociate Editor – Industrial Robot