As robots take over increasing numbers of jobs within factories, they’ll need to become more adaptable than the single-purpose machines found on production lines today.

IBM’s vision for the general-purpose bots of the factories of tomorrow, are machines whose versatility comes from being linked to smart services in the cloud.

At IBM’s recently opened Watson Internet of Things global HQ in Munich, Germany, Big Blue was demonstrating a cloud-connected robot arm it has developed with iPhone maker Foxconn.

The bot is designed to be a step towards general-purpose factory robots, capable of taking stock, judging what action to take next and exchanging information with people and other machines.

IBM’s partner in the project, Foxconn, has a keen interest in automation of its factories, with the electronics manufacturing giant recently revealing a plant run almost entirely by robots.

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The Foxconn-manufactured robot arm being demoed by IBM at its IoT center is voice-controlled, with the operator able to use spoken English to tell the arm to draw Mandarin Chinese characters.

The idea is not to create a robot that writes in Mandarin, but to demonstrate the general-purpose nature of the cloud-connected bot, whose software and services could be reconfigured to carry out whatever lifting or sorting tasks a factory needs, said Sebastien Chaumiole, of the IBM Watson IoT Centre.

Eventually the “robot will basically be your co-worker”, he said, adding “it will behave naturally with you and understand the context you are in”.

Behind the scenes the arm relies on several layers of IBM cloud-hosted services to work.

The voice commands are sent to the IBM Cloud, where IBM Watson transcription and translation services convert the spoken English into text and then translate it into old Mandarin Chinese characters.

The Watson IoT Platform then transmits the symbols from the cloud to the industrial robotic arm, which draws the intricate characters using a wooden calligraphy pen, stopping periodically to dip into a saucer of ink.

The arm hasn’t been specifically designed for this task, but is instead a standard robotic arm with six joints and fine control over its movements. However it was calibrated to set the tip of the pen at a precise height and position above the paper.

The robot is attached to an industrial PC, which is running Foxconn software that tells the robot arm the precise movements needed to draw the thick and thin lines of a Chinese character when it receives messages sent from the Watson IoT Platform, sent using the MQTT protocol.

Among the mesh of different applications that underpin the arm are several running on IBM’s Bluemix platform-as-a-service offering, while Node-RED modules are used to simplify the process of connecting the arm to the backend cloud services.

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