Abdelmalek Nasraoui often thinks back to his first meeting with his future employer.
As a young scientist at the Karlsruhe Nuclear Research Centre, he had been selected to present the results of a feasibility study on the use of image processing to a wide audience – and Gerhard Schubert had travelled to Karlsruhe to see the presentation. When he saw a simulated image in which the centre of gravity and the rotational position of chocolates were marked, he immediately recognised the huge potential of these results. “And it was a turning point for me too,” Nasraoui recalls. He decided to dedicate himself to applied science and moved to Crailsheim to do research on the connection between vision and robotics in a company with 200 employees.
The most recent outcome of this memorable encounter is Schubert’s patented 3D scanner which represents a breakthrough in a highly competitive field – and which so far is unique worldwide. Not only for the packaging industry, but also for Nasraoui personally, it embodies an important milestone along a long road full of challenges. Nasraoui recalls: “As a child, I experienced the war in Algeria. My parents were illiterate, but I had the good fortune of being the only one of eight siblings to have access to advanced schooling. This was only possible with great sacrifices on the part of my parents and my siblings. The Algerian government offered scholarships for gifted high-school students, and initially I applied for the United States. I was accepted, but because we lived in a remote area in the mountains, I didn’t receive the acceptance letter on time. So instead, I went to Germany. During my studies, I was sure that I wanted to work in research and that I would eventually end up in an academic environment. The meeting with Gerhard Schubert abruptly changed my plans. I definitely wanted to accompany the sighted robot, which was being developed as a joint research project between the Karlsruhe Nuclear Research Centre and Schubert, into practice.
In the 1980s, this scientific discipline was still in its infancy. In 1984, through the former Prime Minister of Baden-Württemberg, Lothar Späth, the contact was made between Gerhard Schubert and the Karlsruhe Nuclear Research Centre, which led to the birth of a symbiosis between robotics and vision. The first result was a variation of the Pacos “Pattern Considering System”, a program-controlled image analysis system which can recognise unsorted objects on an assembly line in the packaging of small items. It was first presented at the 1985 Hannover Fair with an area scan and a Schubert robot. Two years later, after Nasraoui and a further expert had joined the company in Crailsheim, a completely new concept, developed at Schubert, was realised and presented at the 1987 Interpack show along with the Speedline chocolate packing line. Inquiries from the bakery sector soon brought along new challenges. The wider conveyor belts, which are used by the baked goods manufacturers, called for the development of line scan cameras. To avoid optical effects such as the parallax, work with cameras became a thing of the past and the first scanner was developed. The transmitted light scanner, which is suitable for scanning geometric dimensions, was followed by reflective light scanners and colour reflected light scanners for surface inspection, and finally by the 3D scanner.
“From the first attempts in Karlsruhe, to my joining Schubert in Crailsheim, through to the 1987 Interpack fair, it was certainly a very fruitful phase with several milestone developments in rapid succession,” says Nasraoui. “No sooner had image processing been baptised, its use in the packaging industry was clearly demonstrated.” Nasraoui was able to handle the heavy workload at the time with an iron will and the deep belied that he was taking part in a breakthrough, forward-looking development. His main motivation was and still is the desire to improve people’s lives through applied science. “People are afraid of being replaced by machines, but what machines can take over for them is really only the repetitive and harmful work, opening up opportunities for people to further develop themselves. Being able to contribute to this with my own work fills me with happiness and pride.”
In the future, the combination of robotics and image processing could also become an important component of networked production in the context of Industry 4.0. Currently, the idea of using the 3D scanner in manufacturing plants in different industries is also being investigated, in view of rejecting defective products long before the packaging process begins and to therefore be able to further streamline production. “My vision is autonomous production whereby the scanner can provide feedback to previous stages of production in situations such as these, in view of automatically correcting the problem. For instance, in the case of biscuits that are too dark, information would be shared that the oven isn’t properly set. The production manager could monitor these operations on his or her smartphone from anywhere in the world, without having to intervene,” explains Nasraoui. “The time gained can be used for more skilled activities.”
The fact that progress – in spite of people’s fears – cannot be stopped, is something that Nasraoui sees when he visits his home country Algeria. “The tribal lifestyle which was very common in the Algerian Aurès mountains no longer exists. The people there have joined the ranks of modern life. Most of them now live in towns, with mobile phones and all the commodities you would expect. Of course, however, with change there is always something that is left behind. But we have to look ahead: what does a development bring, how can it be used to benefit people while avoiding abuse?” Nasraoui now gives lectures at international conferences and at universities in Algeria. And, together with several other of his countrymen and women working in key positions worldwide, he is also committed to supporting his country of birth. “I came from a traditional society in one of the most remote regions of the world and would not have found my way without the support of other people. This is something I wish to give back.”
He has never once regretted his decision to work with Schubert. Today, the large company with more than 1,000 employees gives him the freedom needed for meaningful research and development work, as well as a healthy environment and colleagues who get along well with each other. “The confidence that management places in us is enormous. At Schubert, I enjoy freedom and leeway as seldom experienced in other working environments. Every morning when I drive to the company premises and envision Schubert’s remarkable development, I feel a great joy to be part of this success. Driven individuals can implement groundbreaking innovations, without pressure from above. And I am very grateful to have the opportunity to work this way.”