AIXLAB — Applied research at the interface between humans and AI

Original article was published on Artificial Intelligence on Medium

AIXLAB — Applied research at the interface between humans and AI

The research and use of artificial intelligence (AI) methods in the industrial context is currently a key driver of innovation.

Methods of AI enable the recognition of patterns from data and thus allow the prediction of similar future cases. A human-centred design approach is essential for artificial intelligence to support employees in their day-to-day activities. In this context, two factors are crucial for the successful use of AI in combination with new technologies. Firstly, it requires motivated employees who are trained in the use of AI applications. Secondly, a supportive environment is needed to enable a reliable and targeted use of AI.

These two factors form one of three new fields of research in the Department Organizational Development at the Machine Tool Laboratory WZL of RWTH Aachen University: Augmented Intelligence. Scientific staff from various disciplines work together with national and international partners from research and industry on AI solutions for production, which extend human intelligence with its inherent creativity, spontaneity and intuition. In order to develop and test these solutions as close as possible to real-world applications, a dedicated research laboratory was recently designed — the AIXLAB. The objective is to establish a transdisciplinary hub for AI learners, researchers, developers and users who want to understand and help shape the influence and potential of AI.

The basis for the idea of AIXLAB is the Escape Room of the WZL — one of the winning projects of the university competition on the topic of “Workplaces of the Future” sponsored by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) in 2018. The basic idea of the Escape Room was to provide a prototype for the employees in the production of the future. For this purpose, a classic industrial workplace was set up as an example and complemented by digital technologies developed within the framework of research projects. In line with the basic idea of an Escape Room, it was the task of smaller groups to solve quality-related problems relevant to the work by using the technologies provided in order to be able to “escape” the room.

“Through this playful approach, the advantages and possibilities of digital technologies were communicated to vocational school pupils, students and company representatives, among others,” says Dr. phil. Ina Heine, Head of the Organizational Development Department.

Due to the current innovation driver AI and the research group’s claim to the human-centred use of AI in industrial production, the concept of the Escape Room was redesigned at the end of 2019. The result of this process is the AIXLAB. In accordance with the above-mentioned research field of the Organizational Development department and the extended thematic focus, the letters AI in the name stand for Augmented Intelligence. The new orientation of the original concept comprises two essential facets, which are symbolized in the name by the letter X: (1) Experimenting (eXperimentation) with and (2) Experiencing (eXperience) artificial intelligence. This gives AIXLAB its two name variations or extensions “AIXPERIMENTATIONLAB” and “AIXPERIENCELAB”.

AIXLAB — Experimental and demonstration laboratory for human-centered AI in industrial production

The first test and demonstration field depicted in the new AIXLAB is the manual assembly. With support of item Industrietechnik GmbH, four modular assembly workstations with ergonomic illumination were set up. The modularity of the workstations provides an ideal platform for meeting the many different requirements associated with the facets of experimentation and demonstration. This means that the workstations can be adapted with little effort — for example to carry out studies or test new findings. The research laboratory is currently still under construction, which is delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic (as of June 2020). However, the following image already gives a first visual impression of the AIXLAB:

Setup of the new AIXLAB

After the physical setup of the laboratory environment, the AI-based solutions developed in current research projects will be integrated into the current test and demonstration field. One example is the assembly support system from the AuQuA research project. Together with scientists from the Universidade de Sao Paulo, a user-oriented support system for manual assembly is being developed with the help of augmented reality based assembly instructions, which are generated and optimized by the system itself using algorithms from the field of machine learning.

In addition, existing digital technologies (such as AR and VR applications and smart KPI dashboards) are adapted to the use case of manual assembly and interlinked in the sense of the Internet of Production. Up-to-date information on AIXLAB can be found regularly on the medium topic blog Industrial Formation. The project is realized by Thomas Hellebrandt and Sascha Thamm, who both work at the Machine Tool Laboratory WZL of the RWTH Aachen University in the Department of Organizational Development at the chair of Prof. Dr.-Ing. Robert H. Schmitt.