Interview with Prof. Vladimír Mařík from the Czech Institute of Informatics, Robotics and Cybernetics

Since 2018, Prof. Mařík is the Scientific Director of the Czech Institute of Informatics, Robotics, and Cybernetics (CIIRC), which is located at the Czech Technical University (CTU) in Prague. He was appointed Professor of Technical Cybernetics at CTU in 1990, and served as Head of the Department of Cybernetics – EU Center of Research Excellence at CTU from 1999 to 2013. In 1992, he founded the Rockwell Automation Research Center Prague, and with his 30 years experience in leading research activities in  industrial automation with a focus in applied AI he became one of the founding members of the CIIRC in 2013. He is author and co-author of 16 books, 160 scientific research papers and 5 US patents. Awarded the “Honorary Cross for Science and Art” in Austria in 2003 and the “Medal of Merit of the Czech Republic” in 2017, he now also leads the team of the Czech Industry 4.0 and the EU Project to establish the “Research and Innovation Center for Advanced Industrial Production – RECAIP 2019-24” at CIIRC.


1.    Prof. Mařík, among other roles, you are the Scientific Director of the Czech Institute of Informatics, Robotics and Cybernetics (CIIRC). Could you tell us a bit more about CIIRC and its work in the field of Digital Twin technologies?

CIIRC is a new University Institute at the Czech Technical University in Prague. It was established 6 years ago. The new building was opened on May 2nd, 2017 and there are currently 250 researchers working in this facility comprising well-equipped labs and facilities. The industrial testbed, the only one of its type in the Czech Republic, represents a unique facility enabling researchers to perform physical manufacturing experiments with tens of robots and machine tools of different types. CIIRC became the home of the National Center for Industry 4.0 (2017), National Competence Center in Cybernetics and AI (2018), and European Digital Innovation Hub for AI (2019). CIIRC is a self-sustaining research institution: one third of its budget comes from industry, and nearly two thirds from competitive European and national project funding. The main goal is to gradually build CIIRC up into a national scientific and teaching workplace that is visible on a European and international level. Digital Twin technology represents an important part of the key technologies for the internet-based industrial revolution and is at the center of the AI research activities of our Institute. We are trying to define the relevant architectures and data structures for Digital Twins and to test the solutions in industrial practice. In cooperation with the International Data Spaces association (CIIRC serves as a hub for this association), we are also putting a lot of effort into the development of Digital Twin standards.


2.    Is there a project or result that you are particularly proud of?

There are already several European projects conducted at CIIRC with excellent results. I am, for example, very proud of the results of the ARUM Project, which resulted in a new architecture of the production scheduling system with real-life application at the Airbus production line for the A 350 fuselage being assembled in Hamburg. This is one of the first applications leveraging the agent-based technology. The agents are nothing else than Digital Twins equipped with the capability to share the global goal of activities, like e.g. minimizing time of assembling in an environment with dynamic changes (such as missing parts, broken components, lack of resources, etc.).


3.    Are there any collaborations between CIIRC and Canada in the field of Digital Twin technologies?

I have been personally cooperating in this field with the University of Calgary for more than 20 years. First, with one of the world-leading professors in this field, Prof. Douglas Norrie, and in the last decade with Prof. Robert Brennan. We have jointly contributed to the development of real-time agents in industrial control with the first applications in Rockwell Automation products. The other important long-term academic collaborator is Dr. Weiming Shen from the National Research Council , who is studying issues connected to collaborative manufacturing environments.


4.    You mentioned that CIIRC is building a new Center for Intelligent Manufacturing. What are the benefits this center will offer to researchers and, potentially, to companies as well?

The RICAIP Center (Research and Innovation Center for Advanced Industrial Production) is being built with the mission to make a significant contribution to fundamental and applied research in artificial intelligence, machine learning, computer science and robotics for advanced industry, to develop an EU R&D Infrastructure for advanced industrial production (RICAIP Industrial Testbed Core), and also to support other related European research infrastructures. The vision of the RICAIP founders is to build an outstanding international team of scholars with international visibility and impact in scientific research, and to be the key European centre for innovation and technology transfer for industry, business and the public.

Within the frame of this Center, a geographically distributed testbed for intelligent manufacturing will be built. The parts and components of this testbed will be integrated by using virtual and augmented reality technologies and will serve as a core element of the Pan-European testbed infrastructure. The goal is to help reduce the ramp-up time and costs for processes connected to introducing Industry 4.0 principles.

RICAIP, in the long-term perspective, will become a world-class, EUR 30 mil/year, distributed research centre with 350 researchers, significantly transcending the initial consortium members. With infrastructure in Prague and the core partnering institutions of VUT CEITEC Brno, DFKI Saarbruecken, ZEMA Saarburecken, and further nodes in Europe, RICAIP will be working together with industrial partners on more than 100 projects in all aspects of Industry 4.0, distributed manufacturing systems and value chains in a profoundly changing industrial sector.

The RICAIP Center is funded by the EU. Its Phase I was successfully completed in August 2018. Phase II, covering the years 2019-2025, was approved by the EU in April 2019. The total confirmed funding for this period from EU and ESFRI funding reaches 50 mil. EUR.


5.    Digital Twin technologies can provide companies and researchers with many benefits; however, their implementation is still quite complex and challenging. The technology requires smart physical objects or systems, i.e. objects or systems that are equipped with sensors, antennas or similar devices, so that they can communicate and transmit live data back to their digital twin. What role do you see CIIRC and its new center play in helping overcome these and similar challenges in Digital Twin technologies to make implementation easier and cheaper for a wider range of companies in the Czech Republic and internationally?

I feel that the main bottleneck  in industrial deployment of the Internet-of-Things (IoT) is the capacity of shop-floor communication and negotiation among the Digital Twins. The massive volume of messages to be exchanged between Digital Twins causes a queue of messages – a single delayed, “obsolete” message might cause misunderstandings or even failures within the global system. Our goal is to test and co-develop systems for 5G internet shop-floor communication, which is fast enough to resolve this issue. There are many theoretical and technical problems connected with this effort, such as “island” communication inside the workshop extended by dedicated 5G communication among the islands in the case of distributed manufacturing. We need to make the communication channels broader as the virtual and augmented reality plays an important role in our solutions – we want to really see the robots and other machines physically operating somewhere else as being an organic part of the whole manufacturing process. The experimental development of distributed manufacturing solutions helps to speed up the ramp-up processes when completing new manufacturing lines, or when solving the problems of retrofitting of production lines. And this is very important for Czech SMEs that are thinking about replacing or adding 2-3 new machines into their older manufacturing facility. The development and verification of this innovative solution might be carried out in a very short time, eliminating the need to physically move any machines. It will also be an extremely cheap and fast way to  upgrade current manufacturing workshops.


6.    How do you see Digital Twin technologies influencing industry in the Czech Republic in the near future? And how do you think this technology could change how we think of certain industries, jobs, information sharing, and security?

The Czech Republic is the “most industrialized” EU country, with more than 30 % of the GDP being generated by industrial production (the EU average is around 20%). In the Czech Republic, there are manufacturers of many machine tools, which should be compatible with Industry 4.0 solutions – without the Digital Twin accompanying any tool, those machine tools are not yet competitive on the market . That is why CIIRC is putting a lot of effort into the development of Digital Twin technologies and especially standards. And Czech SMEs are eager to get these solutions.

Up until the 1980s,  industry just manufactured products. In connection with the internet paradigm, the products themselves are becoming the carriers of additional, self-referential information (i.e. information about manuals, services, on potential extensions and dual uses). In connection with the industrial revolution appearing in the last decade, the information on each product can include its design, knowledge on processes to manufacture the product, information about additional or potentially additional capabilities of the product and the lifecycle management records, etc. This information  is concentrated in the Digital Twin to a larger and larger extent. Recently, the Digital Twins have started to play the key role in production. The product now is the physical output of the information being developed, stored, and modified in the Digital Twin. This fact completely changes the future vision of manufacturing – the most valuable asset in a factory is the data and knowledge contained in the Digital Twins. The well-structured information is playing a more and more dominant role over the physical processes in up-to-date manufacturing. This will significantly influence the nature of industry, will influence the structure of jobs (there will be far fewer manual workers, but more knowledge and data engineers). The security issues connected with the necessary data sharing are not solved yet, and they represent a crucial challenge for manufacturing in the future.

CIIRC’s role is to support Czech SMEs to stay at the leading edge of manufacturing technology in Europe.